(Reuters) - Former U.S. Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat who defeated a prominent Republican incumbent in 2008 and helped secure approval of the Obamacare healthcare law, died on Monday at age 66, her family said in a statement to local media.
Hagan had battled with encephalitis or inflammation of the brain for about three years after suffering a tick bite. She died in her sleep at her home in Greensboro, North Carolina, according to the Charlotte Observer.
“We are heartbroken to share that Kay left us unexpectedly this morning,” her family said in a statement to Reuters and other media.
“Kay meant everything to us, and we were honored to share her with the people of North Carolina whom she cared for and fought for so passionately as an elected official,” the statement said.
Before running for the U.S. Senate, Hagan worked in the banking industry and served in the North Carolina state Senate.
Hagan defeated Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole in the 2008 election, in which Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama won the Southern state in a reversal of years of losses there by Democrats. Dole, a former Cabinet secretary, is the wife of former U.S. senator and 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Hagan served on several Senate committees, including the Armed Services Committee. Her father and brother had both been in the U.S. Navy.
In 2010, she joined other Democrats in voting for the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, which became Obama’s signature domestic legislation.
The same year, Hagan became one of only five Democrats in the Senate to vote against a bill to allow immigrants who entered the United States as children without authorization to legally remain in the country. The bill, known as the DREAM Act, was defeated.
Hagan narrowly lost to Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, in the 2014 election.
Tillis, in a statement on Twitter, said he and his wife, Susan, were “absolutely heartbroken by Senator Kay Hagan’s sudden passing.”
Obama in a statement called Hagan a “terrific” public servant “eager to find common ground, willing to rise above the partisan fray, and always focused on making progress for the people she served.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic contender for the party’s nomination to face Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, said in a statement he saw Hagan and her husband, Chip, during a stop in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday. He called Hagan a crucial ally in the Obama administration’s battle to pass the Affordable Care Act.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Peter Cooney