Updated: March 21, 2014 at 5:02 pm
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Almost treating the state House speaker like her general election rival, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is redoubling her campaign focus on Thom Tillis, even though it's still unclear whether he'll survive the Republican primary.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Hagan said Friday she'll begin a new initiative next week that seeks to etch into voters' minds a link between Tillis and the conservative financiers of Americans for Prosperity, brothers Charles and David Koch.
"I really want to highlight the Tillis-Koch agenda and how it's bad for North Carolina's middle class," Hagan said in a phone interview.
Americans for Prosperity has spent several millions dollars on television ads in North Carolina critical of Hagan on the health care overhaul law, but it has never mentioned Tillis by name in the commercials and is barred by law with working closely with Tillis' campaign. Political groups in Washington have run their own ads attacking Tillis and supporting Hagan, but their scope has been smaller.
Tillis is one of eight Republicans seeking the party's nomination May 6. Hagan faces two low-profile candidates in the Democratic primary the same day. Tillis' prominence in state government and fundraising totals to date have given him front-runner status, but his rivals, especially Greg Brannon and the Rev. Mark Harris, have argued he's not conservative enough.
Hagan said she'd leave it to Republicans to decide her challenger but voluntarily critiqued Tillis at nearly every turn in a wide-ranging interview.
Hagan didn't attend President Barack Obama's appearance in Raleigh in January — she said she had work to do in the Senate. But the senator kept open Friday to the possibility of the president campaigning for her later this year.
"The president is always welcome to come to North Carolina and campaign with me," she said.
Hagan, who is seeking her second six-year term, has been attacked by Republicans for repeating the promise similarly made by Obama that the 2010 health care overhaul law would allow consumers to keep their current health plans.
Hundreds of thousands of North Carolina residents received termination notices last fall that their policies that didn't meet standards of the Affordable Care Act and would be canceled. Obama announced that insurance companies could keep offering those substandard policies temporarily.
Hagan reiterated again Friday she wasn't aware of potential problems associated with widespread cancelled policies until last fall, when she heard directly from her constituents.
"We established a three-year transition period so that the insurance companies could begin offering plans that met the requirements of the law," she said, but "I didn't know that some companies would use that transition period to sell outdated plans without fully notifying consumers that they wouldn't be available in 2014."
Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the state's largest health insurer, said last month that it kept Hagan and her staff up to date with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and potential cancellations.
Hagan acknowledged Friday her office had been in contact with the Blue Cross. She didn't provide details about those discussions.
In hindsight, Hagan said, "maybe we could have done more to force companies to be specific" in providing to consumers information about the transition to qualifying plans. In the meantime, she has co-sponsored a bill that would allow consumers to permanently keep their 2013 health plans.
Hagan's campaign said the Tillis-Koch initiative will include social media ads seeking to connect Tillis to the Koch brothers on policies such as minimum wage and Medicaid expansion. Tillis is skeptical about raising the minimum wage to the $10.10, as Democrats on Capitol Hill want, and he was speaker when the General Assembly declined to cover hundreds of thousands of additional people through Medicaid.
Hagan also said she would support next week a Senate bill that would restore emergency assistance benefits for the long-term jobless that would also open the door for North Carolina to re-enter the program. The federal government terminated North Carolina from the program last July because legislators had reduced state benefit maximums. The remaining 49 states lost similar benefits due to Congress' inaction at the end of December.