Voters in the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina elected Thom Tillis over incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan because of concerns about the economy and the president.
That’s the view the day after the Republican state House speaker defeated the first-term Democrat, based on exit polls and voter turnout.
On Wednesday, Tillis held a news conference at the Cornelius town hall, where he got his start in public office eight years ago. He pledged to work across party lines.
“We’ve been given an opportunity to lead, and now we have to lead,” Tillis said. “In order to govern you have to work across the aisle. It’s not stuff you just talk about before the election. It’s things we need to do once we get sworn in in January.”
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Hagan did not make any public appearances on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s election drew a record number of midterm voters – close to 3 million – although the percentage of registered voters who turned out was the same as the 2010 midterms at 44 percent.
Exit polling by a number of organizations presents a consistent picture of those voters. Edison Research, which does exit polling for The Associated Press and the major national TV stations, found voters who supported Tillis were almost universally concerned about the way the economy was going.
Some of the findings:
• The economy was the top concern for 44 percent of those surveyed, followed by 30 percent naming health care as the most important. About two-thirds said the minimum wage should be raised.
• More than half said they disapproved of the way the president was handling his job. Sixty-three percent were dissatisfied or angry with Republican leaders.
• A little more than half said they thought Hagan agreed with the president’s policies too often. At the same time, 42 percent said Tillis was too conservative, and a majority had unfavorable opinions about both parties. Seven in 10 voters thought Tillis and Hagan attacked each other unfairly.
• With laws banning same-sex marriage crumbling in several states this year, including in North Carolina, that became a hot spot during the campaign. The exit poll showed 57 percent oppose North Carolina recognizing same-sex marriages.
• Tillis found support from whites, veterans, religious voters and married voters with children. Hagan was more successful with women, black voters (Hagan won 96 percent of their votes), urban-dwellers and those who consider themselves moderate or liberal.
Pearce Godwin, director of the Raleigh-based American Insights polling firm, reviewed the exit polls in conjunction with his own trend chart of pre-election polling and came up with some additional observations:
• About two-thirds of undecided voters broke for Tillis at the last minute.
• Tillis won native North Carolinians 53 percent to 41 percent. Hagan won the vote of those who moved here, 51 percent to 46 percent. A little more than half of those surveyed were natives.
Hagan 2014 votes vs. 2008
Hagan won in 2008, a presidential year, with almost 53 percent of the vote. This year, she received 47 percent. The difference was that she had much deeper support in urban areas in 2008. For example, she got 1 in 5 of her votes from Wake and Mecklenburg counties in 2008, but this year it was about 1 in 10, a drop-off she did not make up in other counties.
In addition, Hagan lost 24 counties this year that she won in 2008.
Another difference was the voting of people ages 18-29.
On Tuesday, Hagan got 53 percent of young people’s vote to 39 percent for Tillis. That was down sharply from 2008, when she had 71 percent, compared with 24 percent for her Republican opponent then, Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
The outcome of this year’s Senate race “says a lot about the unpopularity of the president in the state. I think that really was the key factor in the outcome,” said Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at N.C. State University. “It was always going to be very difficult for an incumbent Democratic senator in a purple state, which has some strong red in it, to win under those conditions.”
The unofficial results show that Hagan won urban areas, and Tillis got a larger percentage of the votes in rural and suburban areas.
Tom Eamon, a political science professor at East Carolina University, said that followed the pattern of other recent elections in the state. Democrats do best in urban counties and those with universities, and in the south-central and northeastern counties with large African-American populations, he said.
“We remain one of the more closely divided states in the country,” Eamon said.
One difference between this midterm and the last one, in 2010, was how the Republican candidate fared in Wake and Forsyth counties. Republican Sen. Richard Burr won those two urban counties in 2010. Tillis lost them this year.
But Burr’s race in 2010 was less competitive, and there wasn’t any doubt he’d win re-election, Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer said. “And it was such a different political environment: 2010 was the tea party insurgency. That automatically shifted things to the Republican side.”
‘Just about turnout’
This year the race was close, but it turned out to be a standard midterm electorate, Bitzer said. Exit polls showed the party breakdown of voters was 36 percent Democrats and 35 percent Republicans, and that unaffiliated voters favored Tillis 49 percent to 42 percent.
Frank Hill, director of the Institute for Public Trust in Charlotte, a nonprofit group that encourages people from the private sector to run for office, also said he saw a typical off-year election this year. Hill was a chief of staff to Dole.
“The president has been there for six years. People are upset with the policies in a lot of different ways. Lots of young people can’t find their first job out of college so they’re getting antsy. The unemployment rate is down but the number of people dropping out (of the job market) is up,” Hill said. Add to that the worries about Ebola and there’s a great sense of unease, he said.
“I’ve been through a lot of these,” Hill said. “These off-year elections are just about turnout.” Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss, news researcher David Raynor and Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer contributed.