The race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger, House Speaker Thom Tillis, already stands as the most expensive Senate contest in North Carolina history. The big money reflects the high stakes: The outcome could determine which party controls the Senate and the effectiveness of President Obama in his last two years in office.
Yet for all the money and consequences involved, the race is proving remarkably empty of content. Tillis has relied on a carpet bombing of negative TV ads paid for by third parties and tying Hagan to “Obamacare.” Hagan, to a lesser extent, has relied on outside groups to hammer Tillis as anti-public education and out of touch with the priorities of women.
Voters, who’ve proven largely numb to the influence of TV ads, might have hoped for more substance and signs of leadership when the two candidates met in their first debate on Wednesday. Instead, Hagan and Tillis stepped full-blown out of their ads like avatars and continued throwing their tactical, poll-tested talking points past each other.
Tellingly, voters seemed to expect such a performance. Viewership was low. The most animated discussion revolved around the only fresh development: Was it patronizing for Tillis to keep addressing the senator as Kay?
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Yes, it was, but who cares? North Carolina is climbing out of the worst economic period since the Great Depression. Jobs are hard to find. Many are unemployed or underemployed. People have lost their houses and their savings. A generation of young North Carolinians is being stymied by a heavy burden of student debt just as they try to get a start in life.
The state’s water supplies are threatened by coal ash and lax regulations, and fracking may be about to increase the threat. The Republican-led General Assembly has taken the state down a right-wing path that is undoing decades of progressive government. Hundreds of thousands of people are without health insurance, and hospitals are struggling because the legislature won’t expand Medicaid. One child in four in North Carolina lives below the poverty line.
The list could go on, but the point is plain. This exorbitantly funded Senate contest has taken a page from Seinfeld. It is a race about nothing. With Seinfeld, it was funny. With Hagan-Tillis, it’s sad.
Is it too much to expect politicians at this level to engage in a bold debate about the issues that matter? Over a thousand Moral Monday protesters gave themselves up to arrest because they felt passionately about the state’s direction under its Republican leadership. Just Thursday, fast-food workers in North Carolina were arrested after they joined a national protest demanding a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Can’t people seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate take the risk of taking a stand?
Uninspiring ‘most moderate’
The problem is caused by both sides. Tillis appears to be a man who wants to be in the U.S. Senate because it’s a few more rungs up the ladder. It’s hard to tell what he really cares about.
Tillis’ lack of conviction was most clearly demonstrated when he ushered through the measure to put a state constitutional amendment on the ballot banning same-sex marriage. It was a bitterly divisive action that saw opponents in the House rise to give heartfelt and poignant remarks about how the amendment would enshrine prejudice against their relatives and friends.
Tillis candidly acknowledged that the nation’s attitude on gay rights is changing and that the amendment would likely be removed within 20 years. But he pushed it through. Other people want it, so let’s just legalize a generation of bias. Whatever.
But the larger fault for this vacuous race lies with Hagan. She started out skittish on defending the Affordable Care Act. She avoids campaigning with Obama, even though he carried the state in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012. She runs ads touting her designation by the National Journal as “the most moderate senator.” She trots out the familiar claim of “moderate” candidates that party doesn’t matter. She’ll work with everyone.
But party does matter. That’s why nearly $30 million has poured into this race. And party matters because Democrats and Republicans have sharply different ideas about economic fairness and the role of government.
Political consultants no doubt have counseled Hagan to hunker down in the middle. It’s the smart way to win the election. Matters of ideology and conviction can come afterward.
But it may not be so smart. In a midterm election that favors Republicans, Hagan will need to motivate her base and turn out Democratic voters. Not many will be fired up to vote for the nation’s “most moderate” senator in a time of enduring economic hardship. If the race is just about a coin flip, they may stay home and let it go to Speaker Thom whatever.