Kay Hagan, former U.S. senator from North Carolina who was falsely accused of promoting “godlessness” during her successful 2008 campaign, died on Oct. 28 at age 66. Hagan had been ill with encephalitis, which was caused by a rare tick-borne illness.
Hagan, a Democrat, ran against incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole during the ’08 race. With polls showing Dole running behind in the closing days, her campaign decided to go negative and cast aspersions on Hagan’s faith.
The Dole campaign aired a commercial attacking Hagan for attending a fundraiser that was hosted by Woody Kaplan, a businessman who is active in groups promoting secular government and humanism. Kaplan held a fundraiser for Hagan at his home in Massachusetts, but the event had nothing to do with the secular groups Kaplan works with. Among the attendees was then U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, a Roman Catholic.
Nevertheless, the Dole campaign ad accused Hagan of consorting with “godless Americans” and hinted that Hagan had cut some sort of political deal with secularists. A voice-over ominously said, “Godless Americans and Kay Hagan – she hid from cameras. Took ‘Godless’ money. What did Kay Hagan promise in return?” The ad concluded with an impersonation of Hagan’s voice saying, “There is no God.”
Hagan, however, was not “godless.” She was a Presbyterian and a former Sunday school teacher. During an interview on a Raleigh radio station, Hagan blasted the ad, saying, “I think Elizabeth Dole has just gone to the lowest of the lows. This is an attack on my Christian faith.” Hagan filed a defamation lawsuit over the ad, but withdrew it after the election.
The ad backfired. On Election Day Hagan won handily, 53 to 44 percent. Hagan served one term in the Senate before losing the seat to Thom Tillis in 2014.