The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is poised to play an important role in the contest, which is expected to be a key battleground in determining whether Democrats can maintain control of the Senate. Seven figure ad buys from conservative independent expenditure groups, primarily Americans for Prosperity, already have been bought attacking Hagan for her support of the federal healthcare law.
Three GOP challengers are viewed as having a credible chance in the primary. State House Speaker Thom Tillis is the clear favorite. Public Policy Polling released a poll Monday showing Tillis with support from 40% of likely GOP voters. He's been endorsed by numerous GOP bigwigs, including North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon registered 28% in the PPP survey. He's backed by influential conservative Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Rev. Mark Harris, who's popular among social conservatives, picked up support from 15% of respondents.
If Tillis doesn't capture more than 40% of the vote, there will be a rematch between the top two GOP contenders July 15.
That could drain GOP bank accounts and bolster Hagan's prospects. At the end of March, Hagan had $8.6 million in the bank, according to the Federal Election Commission. Tillis had just more than $1 million cash on hand at the close of the first quarter.
The ACA remains unpopular in North Carolina. The most recent Elon University Poll, conducted last month, found that 44% of respondents believed Obamacare would make the healthcare situation worse in the state, while only 35% thought it would improve matters. But that was actually down from a high of 54% of respondents who thought the healthcare law would make things worse in a previous poll.
“It does seem that the animosity toward Obamacare is declining a bit,” said Kenneth Hernandez, director of the Elon University Poll. “Once it gets enacted and the sky doesn't fall, it's hard to convince people to be really motivated. They tend to start to see other issues as more important.”
But with 2014 turnout likely to be low, animus toward the federal healthcare law is still expected to play a major role in motivating GOP voters. That's why Tillis and his allies have been relentless in their focus on the law in attacking the incumbent. That will undoubtedly continue if he triumphs in the primary.
“It's all Obamacare all the time,” Bitzer said. “What Tillis has done is basically tied Hagan, Obama and Obamacare into just about every response on any topic.”
Follow Paul Demko on Twitter: @MHpdemko