As a moderate Democrat who hailed from a political family with long roots in the U.S. Senate, Kay Hagan won election as North Carolina’s junior Senator in 2008 by defeating a nationally known incumbent. Hagan brought a decade of experience in the state senate, and a deep knowledge of the banking industry. When she arrived on Capitol Hill, she sought to be a centrist as the effects of the economic crisis of 2008 had further polarized an already partisan chamber.

Kay Ruthven was born on May 26, 1953, in Shelby North Carolina, to Joe Ruthven and Jeanette Chiles Ruthven. The family relocated to Lakeland, Florida, where her father ran a tire sales business, was a real estate agent, and later served as the mayor of Lakeland. Her mother was a homemaker and the sister of Lawton M. Chiles, Jr., who represented Florida for 18 years in the U.S. Senate (1971–1989) before winning election as the state’s governor in 1990. Kay spent six months interning in her uncle’s office in the 1970s, operating an elevator that shuttled Senators to and from the chamber. She also helped out on his various campaigns. She earned a B.A. in American Studies from Florida State University in 1975, and three years later graduated with a J.D. from Wake Forest University. In law school, she met her future husband Charles “Chip” Hagan, and afterward they settled in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where they raised three children: Tilden, Jeanette, and Carrie. Kay Hagan went into practice as a lawyer, working in the trust division of North Carolina National Bank, now Bank of America. She eventually became a vice president at the bank.1

Hagan began her political career as the Guilford County campaign manager for James B. Hunt’s successful gubernatorial bids in 1992 and 1996. In 1998, Hunt and state senator Marc Basnight recruited her to run for a state senate seat representing a Greensboro district. She defeated the GOP incumbent and served in the legislature for a decade. Basnight, who served as president pro tempore of the state senate, mentored Hagan and steered her toward key committee posts, include the co-chairmanship of the budget committee.2

In 2008, incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Elizabeth Hanford Dole stood for re-election and was considered such a strong contender that a number of prominent North Carolina Democrats declined to challenge her. She was, as one profile put it, “Washington royalty with a gold-plated resume”: two-time Cabinet secretary, former presidential candidate, and head of the Red Cross.3 At first Hagan was tentative, too, declaring she wouldn’t run, but after Hunt and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Charles Schumer lobbied her she reversed course and entered the race. In the Democratic primary she faced a field of four male candidates, but with strong support of the national party she prevailed with 60 percent of the vote; her nearest competitor, Jim Neal, an investment adviser from Chapel Hill, had 18 percent.4

In the general election, Hagan stressed her long connection to the state—implicitly criticizing Dole’s status as an outsider who was married to former Kansas Senator Bob Dole and had spent much of her life living in the Midwest and Washington, D.C.5 She also played up the theme that Dole had been an “absentee” who rarely came to North Carolina given her work as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.6 Hagan benefitted from the large African-American turnout and an energized Democratic base that supported Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign.

When Hagan began to pull even, if not ahead of Dole, in some early fall polls, the campaign turned negative. Hagan’s television ads had tied Dole to the unpopular President George W. Bush, and made thinly-veiled allusions to Dole’s age as undermining her effectiveness. “After six weeks of mudslinging at me, it’s time to say, ‘Enough,’” Dole told the Wall Street Journal.7 The incumbent fired back with television spots, one of which implied Hagan had secretly attended a fundraiser hosted by the Godless America Political Action Committee. The “Godless” ad prompted the church-going Hagan to issue a spirited defense and counter with a defamation lawsuit. The episode seemingly turned voter sentiment against Dole.8 On Election Day Hagan defeated Dole handily, with 52.6 to 44.2 percent of the vote.9 Hagan declared that her win, coming on the same night as Barack Obama’s election as President, was “a testament to how hungry people are for change.”10

When Hagan entered the Senate at the opening of the 111th Congress (2009–2011), she earned assignments to three committees which she held for her entire term of service: Armed Services; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP); and Small Business and Entrepreneurship. In the 112th Congress (2011–2013), she also added a seat on the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee which she held for the balance of her time in the Senate. On Armed Services, Hagan chaired the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities in both the 112th and 113th (2013–2015) Congresses. She also was chairwoman of the HELP Subcommittee on Children and Families in the 113th Congress.

Hagan entered Congress looking to be a centrist Democrat who could help bridge stark gaps in an increasingly divided chamber. “We have a Congress now that is kind of divided, and I want to be one of the ones that helps bring people together,” she said after her election.11 But she also sought to maintain her independence from her party on several key issues—including her support for second amendment rights, her opposition to a 2010 tax bill that provided more than $800 billion in tax cuts, and proposed cuts to military budgets.

Hailing from a state with large banking interests, she took a major interest in financial reforms. Hagan supported the Dodd–Frank bill that overhauled banking regulations in 2010, calling it “commonsense Wall Street reform so American taxpayers will never again have to shoulder the cost of a financial crisis.”12 In the next Congress, though, as a new member of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, she supported measures to delay provisions of the bill that banned banks from proprietary trading (she had already coauthored an amendment in 2010 that exempted insurance companies) and that capped fees that banks could charge for transactions.13

Hagan also spoke out on tax reform and deficit reduction, arguing that the current federal spending trajectory was unsustainable. “We cannot continue to grow the debt and run huge deficits each year with the expectation that our children will pay the bill,” she told colleagues. “This trend of borrowing will eventually have to come to an end one way or the other. The only question is, how are we going to reduce our deficit responsibly and in a bipartisan fashion and in a way that encourages investment and economic growth?”14 In January 2013, she voted for the so-called fiscal cliff deal that raised tax rate on incomes in excess of $400,000.15

From her seat on the Armed Services Committee, Hagan also had a prime perch form which to weigh in on policy and to tend to her state’s military installations. In 2011, she supported the findings of a commission that recommended women should be permitted to serve in combat zones. “Anybody’s who qualified should be able to serve,” Hagan observed. She and the North Carolina’s senior Senator, Richard Burr, worked on a bipartisan bill to provide health services to individuals affected by water contamination at the sprawling Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in the eastern part of the state. It won enactment in 2012. She also opposed the Senate’s 2014 budget bill, drafted by Democrats, because she believed the $240 billion in cuts to military spending was too steep.16

Hagan looked out for her large agricultural constituency, particularly the tobacco industry, which represented a significant part of the state’s economy. She opposed a bill (that eventually became law) that allowed the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the manufacture, sale, and promotion of tobacco products, arguing largely that it would have an adverse impact on North Carolinians already reeling from the ill effects of the Great Recession.17 She also sought to include tobacco as part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.18

On key issues, she generally sided with her party including voting for passage of the landmark Affordable Care Act in 2010. Hagan supported the health care bill largely because she believed it would “eliminate discrimination based on gender and preexisting conditions.” Along with a group of Senate freshmen, led by Mark Warner of Virginia, she proposed a package of amendments as the legislation worked its way through the chamber, including one to use technology to better vet Medicare and Medicaid claims and another that proposed a program of “medication therapy management,” seeking to curb waste by educating patients on their prescription regimen.19

In her 2014 re-election campaign, Hagan squared off against the speaker of the Republican-controlled North Carolina house of representatives, Thom Tillis. Her campaign was one of a handful of closely watched Senate races upon which Democrats’ retention of the Senate hinged in a difficult midterm election season for the President’s party. Early on, outside groups poured millions into ads attacking Hagan, whom they linked to President Obama and the controversial Affordable Care Act. Hagan also faced a distinct disadvantage in a non-presidential election year when voter turnout is often low in North Carolina, making the state less competitive for Democrats. History also suggested she faced an uphill battle as North Carolinians hadn’t re-elected a Democratic Senator since Sam Ervin in 1968.20

While Hagan led many polls into the early fall, political observers noted that the race boiled down to a referendum between North Carolinians’ concerns about political gridlock in Washington versus unhappiness with the state legislature under Tillis in Raleigh.21 On Election Day, out of nearly 3 million votes cast, Tillis prevailed by less than 50,000 votes—defeating Hagan with 48.8 percent to 47.25 percent, with several percent of the vote going to third-party candidates (including Libertarian Sean Haugh who garnered more than 100,000 votes).22

After leaving the Senate at the conclusion of her term in early 2015, Hagan served as a resident fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics and a senior policy consultant at a major Washington, D.C., based firm.23 She passed away on October 28, 2019.


1“Kay Hagan,” Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H001049; Politics in America, 2014 (Washington, D.C.: CQ-Roll Call, Inc., 2013): 722; Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 2009): 1111–1112.

2Politics in America, 2014: 722; Shalia Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So,” 16 October 2008, New York Times: A19.

3Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So.”

4Politics in America, 2014: 721.

5Sarah Lueck, “Campaign ’08: Dole Fights to Hold North Carolina Seat,” 12 September 2008, Wall Street Journal: A8.

6Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So.”

7Lueck, “Campaign ’08: Dole Fights to Hold North Carolina Seat.”

8Dewan, “A Republican Incumbent Finds a Once-Safe Race Less So”; Almanac of American Politics, 2010: 1112; Robbie Brown, “‘Godless’ Link Prompts Lawsuit,” 31 October 2008, New York Times: A22.

9“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

10Fredreka Schouten, “Hagan Takes Republican Seat of Dole,” 5 November 2008, USA Today: A12

11Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Chicago, IL: National Journal Group, Inc., 2011): 1204.

12Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (26 April 2010): 6230.

13Politics in America, 2014: 721; see also, Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (24 May 2010): 8928.

14Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 December 2010): 19841.

15Politics in America, 2014: 722.


17See, for example, Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (4 June 2009): 13897.

18Politics in America, 2014: 721; Almanac of American Politics, 2012: 1204.

19Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (21 November 2009): 28759; Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 1st sess. (8 December 2009): 29750; Politics in America, 2014: 722.

20Matea Gold, “In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan Seeks to Ride Backlash Against State GOP Leaders,” 14 August 2014, Washington Post, online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/in-north-carolina-sen-kay-hagan-seeks-to-ride-backlash-against-state-gop-leaders/2014/08/13/5ec3df48-1f47-11e4-ae54-0cfe1f974f8a_story.html (accessed 13 October 2016); “In N.C., Populist Movement Buoys Democrat Kay Hagan,” 14 October 2014, Washington Post: n.p.

21Gold, “In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan Seeks to Ride Backlash Against State GOP Leaders”; Nate Cohn, “In North Carolina, Kay Hagan Shows Surprising Strength,” 25 September 2014, New York Times: A3.

22“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

23“Kay R. Hagan biography,” https://www.akingump.com/en/lawyers-advisors/kay-r-hagan.html (accessed 6 October 2016).

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of North Carolina
Special Collections

Greensboro, NC
Papers: Senatorial papers
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Bibliography / Further Reading

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Kay R. Hagan, United States Senator, 2009-2015. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2015.

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