State Politics

August 31, 2014

Debate could shape Senate race between Kay Hagan, Thom Tillis

The North Carolina race has already seen the most spending of any in the country. Polls show the pair essentially tied in a battle that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.

They’re like two prize fighters, bruised and battered by months of pounding but still standing.

Now Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis head into the ring at 7 p.m. Wednesday for their first debate (UNC TV), a head-to-head matchup that could shape the final nine weeks of the campaign.

The race already has seen more outside spending than any in the country. Even adjusted for inflation, it’s on pace to be the most expensive in state history.

And after all that, polls show Hagan and Tillis essentially tied in a race that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.

Both sides see a glass half-full.

“Even with millions of dollars in outside money pouring into North Carolina to distort Kay’s record and prop up (state House) Speaker Thom Tillis, Kay remains ‘resilient’ while Speaker Tillis has not had the ‘summer that he wanted,’ ” Hagan spokesman Chris Hayden said, alluding to recent remarks by TV pundits.

Republicans make a similar argument.

“Look at the amount of money the Democrats are having to plow into North Carolina,” said Tillis strategist Paul Shumaker. “Hagan is not moving the needle. I’d say it looks pretty encouraging.”

Raleigh vs. Washington

So far it’s been a race fought mostly on television.

Hagan, the incumbent, has sandwiched campaign appearances between working in Washington. Since he won the primary in May, Tillis spent most of his time in Raleigh for the legislative session, which dragged into late August.

Tillis’ only public appearances last week were Friday in Asheville, when he spoke to a group of business leaders and at a campaign headquarters. Neither he nor Hagan, citing debate preparation, had any public events scheduled for Labor Day weekend, traditionally a busy time for candidates.

Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with Washington’s Cook Political Report, said the conventional wisdom is that the legislative session did Tillis no favors, with its controversies over the budget, education and taxes.

“It handed Democrats more fodder to use against him, kept him off the campaign trail and limited the time he would have spent raising money,” she said.

Democrats are already using the session to hammer Tillis.

Last month the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a $9.1 million TV buy attacking Tillis’ record on taxes and education. Democrats argue that Republicans cut education spending by $500 million.

Republicans increased actual spending but allocated nearly $500 million less than analysts said would be needed to maintain the same level of services in schools.

While Democrats have made Tillis’ record the issue, Republicans want to make the election a referendum on Washington and President Barack Obama.

Low confidence in economy

Recent polls have put Obama’s popularity at 41 percent in North Carolina, slightly below the national average. When Obama announced he was coming to Charlotte last week to speak to the American Legion about veterans issues, Hagan quickly distanced herself on the issue.

“This race is going to be decided by the national mood,” Shumaker said. “The D.C. cloud is much darker than the Raleigh cloud is. We have a thunderstorm in North Carolina. They have a Category 5 hurricane.”

But a Gallup poll last week also found North Carolinians fell behind the national average in their confidence in state government. Fifty-one percent said they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in state government; 47 percent had low or no confidence.

And the survey also found North Carolinians have far less confidence in the state’s economy than do people in other states.

In announcing the results, Gallup analyst Andrew Dugan said the Hagan and Tillis campaigns “see themselves as a way to fight back against political extremism: either the alleged liberalism of Obama and his allies, or the supposed radicalism of the GOP state government.”

“Given this framing,” he added, “North Carolinians would appear to be making a monumental decision when they go to the ballot box. The determining factor may be whether more North Carolinians fault Obama and Senate Democrats such as Kay Hagan for the state’s underwhelming economic performance, or the Republican officials in charge of the state government in Raleigh.”

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