Tuesday’s second debate between U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and state House Speaker Thom Tillis picked up right where the candidates left off when they met last month, but with far more vigorous and direct criticism of each other.
He attacked the first-term Democrat as ineffective, liberal and part of Washington’s ills. She accused of him of callous Republican extremism.
Their talking points put them within the range of mainstream American politics today, on issues ranging from gay marriage to national security to unemployment, although they remained firmly divided.
The face-off, moderated by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos at the UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, came just less than a month before the election. Both sides and their supporters have waged tens of millions of dollars’ worth of campaigning through TV and other ads – more spent on a race than in any other state this election – as the outcome could help decide the control of the Senate.
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A third and final matchup will be held Thursday in Wilmington.
The fast-paced and occasionally personal tone was set with Hagan’s opening remarks: “Speaker Tillis has built a record of dividing our state, always putting the wealthy and big corporations first.” Later in the debate, she called Tillis “spineless” for criticizing President Barack Obama’s handling of the Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq while refusing to say what he would do.
She also accused Tillis several times of not answering Stephanopoulos’ questions. “You want to ask him your question again?” she asked Stephanopoulos, who twice asked Tillis where he would part with Republican leadership in the Senate. (He later said he wouldn’t have supported shutting down the federal government due to automatic budget cuts under sequestration last year. She said she parted ways with Democrats on the Keystone oil pipeline and on the budget over military cuts.)
Tillis continued his theme tying Hagan to Obama, saying the November election will be a measure of the president’s policies, quoting the now-familiar figure that she has voted with Obama 96 percent of the time.
“I assume you’re proud you voted with him 96 percent of the time,” Tillis said. “I think it’s fair to make this election about his policies.”
Hagan’s response: “One hundred percent of the time Speaker Tillis’ policies have hurt North Carolina,” she said. “He’s gutted education, killed the equal pay bill, no Medicaid expansion.”
She said Tillis was erroneously trying to paint her as part of a liberal Washington establishment, reiterating her ranking as a moderate. “I am smack dab in the middle,” she said. “Smack dab in the middle is exactly where North Carolina is.”
Here are some of the other debate highlights:
Asked on what grounds a challenge could be mounted to salvage North Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban, Tillis didn’t specify but said it would be pursued in spite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week not to take up several federal appeals court cases on the subject.
He said there are still circuit courts that haven’t ruled on the issue and that he hopes it will still go to the Supreme Court.
“I also think we’re in a dangerous time in this country where the president has appointed liberal activist judges and Sen. Hagan has confirmed them, and they’re literally trying to legislate from the bench,” he said.
Hagan noted she came out against the state’s constitutional ban, and added, “I don’t think anybody, including the government, should tell people who they should love.”
She criticized state legislative leaders for spending money on outside attorneys to pursue the matter, in the wake of the attorney general’s decision not to challenge the appeals court ruling.
Tillis continued to attack Hagan for not being engaged enough on international terrorism issues despite her role as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where she missed half of the public meetings, and chair of the Emerging Threats Subcommitttee. He asked her what was so important that she couldn’t attend those sessions.
She defended her diligence, saying she had taken an active interest in the issue beginning in early 2013, and challenged Tillis to come up with a better plan than what is underway with U.S. airstrikes and the arming of moderate rebels in Syria, noting Tillis recently said he didn’t know what the best approach was.
“I wonder how much more information I’d have if my senator from North Carolina, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, would show up for work,” Tillis shot back.
Stephanopoulos noted Tillis recently called for a travel ban to West African countries in response to containing the Ebola disease threat, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director has said that would be counterproductive.
“I know the CDC is working hard,” Tillis said. “I don’t know that they’re working smart.”
He said a travel ban would give experts time to make sure the disease doesn’t spread further. “Until the CDC can convince me we’re able to intervene then we’ve got to prevent them from traveling there,” he added.
In a rare overlapping of agreement, Hagan conceded that a travel ban might be one part of the answer. She said the United States needs to work with other countries but isolating them wouldn’t solve the problem.
She said Congress has allocated nearly $100 million for research and development of therapies that could be used and said Tillis’ remarks were “scare tactics.”
The candidates differed markedly on how to help people find jobs. Hagan called for tax reforms, including a repatriation bill she has sponsored with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona to give breaks to companies that return to this country and hire American workers.
“Sen. Hagan’s solution is spending more money,” Tillis said. “It’s very simple: Government needs to get out of the way. We need to get our spending under control and we need to reduce our regulations.”
Hagan retorted with a summary of the General Assembly’s actions under Tillis: “He’s sending our teachers to Texas, our film industry to Georgia, and Medicaid dollars to 28 other states. That’s his failed economic policy.”
Tillis, who in last month’s debate was criticized as being disrespectful by calling Hagan by her first name, stuck with referring to her as Sen. Hagan throughout the debate.