AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In North Carolina, the ads are starting early - the political ads, that is. Republicans are setting their sights on defeating first-term Democrat Kay Hagan. Senator Hagan's GOP opponent won't be known until the spring but her support for President Obama and the Affordable Care Act has already hurt her with voters. She's also being targeted by outside groups, spending millions of dollars hoping to unseat her. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Yes, the 2014 election is almost 11 months away but you wouldn't know it from local TV in North Carolina. The attack ads are already up and running.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But health care isn't about politics. It's about people. It's not about a website that doesn't work. It's not about poll numbers or approval ratings. It's about people. And millions of people have lost their health insurance.
GONYEA: This one is paid for by Americans for Prosperity, a group with very close ties to the Tea Party Movement and with lots of cash from the billionaire Koch brothers. That and other similar anti-Hagan ads have been running for more than a month. Then, just this past week, Hagan, the Democrat, has gotten some backing from a friendly group, the Senate Majority PAC.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: North Carolina can count on Kay Hagan.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: She protects my Medicare and Social Security.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: She took on drug companies to lower the cost of prescriptions for seniors.
GONYEA: That pushback comes as Hagan's poll numbers have slumped, says Tom Jensen of the North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm.
TOM JENSEN: She's dropped over the last three months from leading most of her opponents by about 15 to being tied.
GONYEA: It's a big decline and Jensen attributes it to all of the attention surrounding the troubled rollout of the HealthCare.gov website and to the early drumbeat of attack ads. I talked to some North Carolina voters in the small town of Selma, as they stood curbside waiting for the start of the annual Christmas parade one night last week.
Where's your head right now in terms of who you might support?
DALE AUSTIN: Well, I still like Hagan, you know. Right now, unless something changes drastically, that's where I'll be.
GONYEA: That's 61-year-old Dale Austin. He describes himself as an independent voter. As for Obamacare and what the problems with its website may mean for Senator Hagan...
AUSTIN: Well, that's not her fault. It's not her fault.
GONYEA: But just a block away, 70-year-old Ethel Brown, who's here with her grandkids, puts full blame for Obamacare on Senator Hagan.
ETHEL BROWN: If it had not been for her, we wouldn't have - we wouldn't be having this Obama thing, insurance stuff. She did vote for it.
GONYEA: Then Brown adds something that will be a concern to the Hagan campaign.
BROWN: I'm a Democrat. I'm a registered Democrat, but I don't always vote Democrat. I voted for her. But I wouldn't no more.
GONYEA: Moments later, the parade was starting, so I quit talking politics and let people cheer on the local high school marching band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY TO THE WORLD")
GONYEA: Political strategists Gary Pearce and Carter Wrenn - a Democrat and a Republican - publish a political blog in North Carolina. They say people often forget that this is such a big state with a changing population. It's becoming less rural, more suburban. Here's Pearce.
GARY PEARCE: A lot of new people coming in here, gravitating toward the cities. Obama won by a hair in 2008. He lost by a hair in 2012. There may be one or two other states that are that close, that volatile, but not much.
GONYEA: His Republican blogging partner, Carter Wrenn, says Senator Hagan will likely go up and down in the polls over the course of the next year, as will Republicans. But he adds...
CARTER WRENN: She's just in a race that she's going to win narrowly or lose narrowly, and she can't change that. And the other thing to worry about is what about Obama. She can't control his popularity.
GONYEA: And, he says, the president's standing will absolutely have an impact in Hagan's chances for re-election. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.