WASHINGTON — Coming into 2014, the word "vulnerable" was used often in association with North Carolina Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
And the fall of Hagan, many said, would be one of the key dominoes returning the U.S. Senate to Republican control.
At mid-year 2014, though, all the talk is about Hagan clinging to a consistent, if small, lead in her re-election campaign against Republican Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House.
It also focuses on how Tillis continues to be bogged down in an extended summer legislative session that was supposed to have ended weeks ago.
Where the race goes from here is anyone's guess, but all signs point to continued spending like there is no tomorrow and a fight to the finish.
"This is looking to be a modern version of the Helms-Hunt race in 1984," said Tom Eamon, political analyst at East Carolina University. He was referring to the titanic struggle that year between incumbent Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic then-governor James B. Hunt Jr., which Helms won.
Earlier this year and "behind the scenes, many Democratic strategists worried that Hagan would be far behind by now," Eamon added.
Republican optimism was fed in large part by President Obama's low approval ratings and Hagan's association with Obama's health care law.
Now, the GOP is finding out "it is extremely difficult to defeat an incumbent," said Nathan Gonzales of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report. That's especially true of an incumbent who can fundraise like Hagan, who had $8.7 million in campaign cash at the beginning of the month, compared with $1.5 million for Tillis.
And a poll released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh shows Hagan leading Tillis 41% to 34%, with Libertarian Sean Haugh at 8%. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 points.
"Tillis is forced to contend with incredibly low approval numbers; both personally and in terms of the statewide perception of the Legislature," the firm said.
The Legislature, which has a 57% disapproval rating, enacted a two-year budget in 2013 that left school spending at $500 million less than what was needed to keep up with inflation and population growth. The repercussions of that have angered many.
The budget is the focus in this summer's session as well, one marked by snarling over teacher pay raises and Medicaid spending.
"Let's see what happens when the Legislature goes out," Jennifer Duffy, of The Cook Political Report, said of the race.
Tillis campaign spokesman Daniel Keylin said his candidate is not the least bit worried.
"Senate campaigns in North Carolina almost always break late," Keylin said.
And Gonzales said Hagan needs to push her poll numbers closer to 50% — at least.
"For an incumbent, it's not good to be polling in the low 40s," he said.
For the 16-month period from January 2013 to April 2014, North Carolina stations sold 14,870 political ads related to the Senate race alone, reaping an estimated $6.3 million in revenue, according to the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And 90% of it was from groups independent of the two candidates but with a fervid interest in the race.
And those ad figures have continued their stratospheric climb. Earlier this month, theCharlotte Observer, citing interviews with strategists for both campaigns, estimated outside groups had already spent close to $26 million.
And an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington watchdog group, said that over the past 18 months, one Charlotte station — WBTV Channel 3 — has sold 4,086 ads for $3.8 million.
What's worrisome, said Kathy Kiely of the Sunlight Foundation, is that an overwhelming amount of the ads are purchased by "dark money" groups that don't have to disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission.
"What voters need to understand is that their elections are being influenced by groups with agendas that could be quite different from the agendas of North Carolinians," she said.
Duffy, of The Cook Political Report, said spending from outside groups has been significant on both sides of the Senate race.
And while Tillis is ensnarled in Raleigh with an unpopular legislature, Hagan continues to be associated with the problem-plagued rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
"There is quite a bit of footage of her saying if you like your plan and like your doctor, you can keep it," Duffy said, adding that North Carolinians have been particularly hard hit by insurance plan cancellations.
Despite all TV ad buys, the race will probably hinge on factors such as the fall political climate and turnout, analysts say. And the latter, they add, has to be worrisome for Hagan because Democratic voters don't turn out as well in non-presidential election years.
Overall, Eamon said, the competitiveness shows how North Carolina has evolved from a red to a "purplish state."