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.
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 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.
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.