RALEIGH, N.C. – Six years ago, little-known North Carolina state legislator Kay Hagan upset Sen. Elizabeth Dole after Hagan and her Democratic allies drilled in voters' minds the idea that Dole was too closely aligned to an unpopular president.
Footage of two older men in rocking chairs outside a country store talking about how Dole voted with George W. Bush 92 percent of the time proved to be the campaign's touchstone commercial.
"Voting 92 percent of the time with the president, whether you support him or not, doesn't work here in North Carolina," Hagan said at her only debate with Dole in 2008.
Today, Republicans are counting on Hagan being judged the same way by the electorate.
Initially repeating Hagan's own words, Republican challenger Thom Tillis told viewers in their first televised debate this month that Hagan voted with President Barack Obama 95 percent of the time.
"By Kay's own standard she's failed the people of North Carolina," Tillis said, adding that "Kay promised that she'd be different, but she broke her promise."
Although there's plenty of dislike for Obama in politically divided North Carolina, Hagan hasn't been tripped up completely. Polls show her with a slight edge over the North Carolina House speaker in one of a handful of closely watched races that will determine whether Democrats can retain control of the Senate in the last two years of Obama's presidency.
The North Carolina race is now the nation's most expensive Senate race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Almost $38 million has been spent so far.
And while Obama's numbers in North Carolina are underwater — an Elon University survey released this week found 52 percent of all residents surveyed disapproved of the president's job — they're not as bad as Bush's figures. In a similar Elon poll in February 2008, Bush's disapproval number was 58 percent.
But Hagan can't completely shake the 95 percent figure, which Tillis' campaign considers the capstone of a narrative that Hagan said one thing in 2008 but did another in Washington. Her vote for Obama's signature 2010 health care law and her Obama-like assertions that people could keep their doctor and insurance plan under the overhaul reinforce the difficulty.
The president "is not real popular in North Carolina and has the potential of making a vote for her less attractive than it might otherwise be," said Duke University political science professor David Rohde.
Hagan has countered that percentages mean little compared to opposing the president when it mattered most to Tar Heel residents, such as on trade bills that hurt North Carolina workers and his administration's handling of veterans' medical care. And she's trumpeted in her own ad a Washington-based publication's determination that she's the most moderate senator in a polarized Congress.
"I stand with the president when it's right for North Carolina, but let me tell you, I stand with the people of North Carolina when it's right for the people of North Carolina," she said during a Sept. 3 debate.
Distance between Democratic candidates and Obama is seen most acutely in the competitive states that will determine the Senate majority. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas all have run TV commercials identifying where they differed with the president. In Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell's Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, says simply in a new ad while holding a rifle: "I'm not Barack Obama."
Hagan's challenge is exceptional because she identified specifically six years ago what constitutes being too allied with a president.
"She's trying as fast as she can to distance herself from Barack Obama and all the chaos that he brings to this race," said Marc Rotterman, a veteran North Carolina Republican media consultant.
Hagan must not believe the connection is all bad for a president who narrowly won North Carolina's electoral votes in 2008 — the first for a Democrat in 32 years. Republican Mitt Romney carried the state in 2012.