North Carolina’s Senate race can be boiled down to three words: national vs. local.
The Republicans have tried to nationalize the race to make it a referendum on the president and the Affordable Care Act, which they call Obamacare. The Democrats have tried to localize it and make it about the legislature and education funding.
So far, the Democrats seem to be winning the argument.
Both Obama and the legislature are unpopular, according to the polls. But this is the fourth election that Republicans have run against Obama and the third election they have run against the president’s health care plan, and both may have lost some of their potency as campaign issues.
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Conversely, this is the first statewide election where Democrats will have a chance to express their displeasure at what they view as an overreach by the Republican legislature. This may be the Democratic tea party moment.
The polls suggest the race maybe slipping away from Tillis. The average of five recent polls – gathered by the website Real Clear Politics – shows Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan with a 4.2 percentage point lead over Tillis. No poll has shown Tillis leading Hagan in more than a month.
Which suggests that if something doesn’t change in the Senate race, Tillis could be in trouble.
There are a few possible game changers in the last month.
The ad wars: About $34 million has been spent on advertising, and the public has already grown weary of a campaign that began last fall. It is going to be increasingly difficult for the $10 million to $15 million that will be spent in the next month to sway many votes. Part of Tillis’ problem is that he does not project likeability or empathy on the TV screen like other leading GOP political figures such as Gov. Pat McCrory or U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
The Democrats used to trot out actor Andy Griffith for TV ads when their candidate was in trouble. Now the Chamber of Commerce has brought out another North Carolina icon, NASCAR driver Richard Petty, in an ad endorsing Tillis.
A changed political environment: The biggest change is the Mideast, where the U.S. has begun bombing Islamic State targets and reinserting some ground troops. The Republicans think they have an opening, and have started running TV ads attacking Hagan and Obama as being soft on terrorists. But initial polling by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion suggests early public approval for Obama. If that holds up, it could freeze the Senate race in place, which would be to Hagan’s benefit.
Turnout: Turnout is likely to decline for a midterm election, so the candidate who can turn out voters will likely win the election. The problem is that neither Hagan nor Tillis is a charismatic candidate who inspires the party base. There is a massive mobilization effort underway involving millions of dollars and hundreds of workers.
For Hagan, there’s the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s “Bannock Street Project,” Planned Parenthood’s “catch and release” program and the AFL-CIO’s Working America program.
Working for Tillis is Americans for Prosperity and the Republican National Committee’s project with the private firm Data Trust. Last week, I received a visit at my home from a cheerful young woman from Americans for Prosperity, who handed me a flier with a picture of Hagan and Obama that attacked both on the health care plan.
The race is still close enough to tip either way. But Republicans are beginning to become nervous about whether there could be negative fallout from a Tillis defeat on other races, such as the N.C. Supreme Court.