Thom Tillis won the US Senate race, but his ideas and GOP mandate are unclear

In North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis, Barack Obama lost. Tillis, the Republican state House speaker, defeated the state’s Democratic incumbent senator by making the contest a referendum on Obama. The president lost in that regard, but it’s hard to tell what won.

Certainly Tillis’ narrow victory can’t be read as an endorsement of his leadership in the House. He didn’t run on that record and for good reason. A recent Elon poll showed that 30 percent of likely voters approve of the job the General Assembly’s is doing, compared to 55 percent who disapprove.

Tillis, like other Republicans in purple states, won on the strength of a midterm electorate disproportionately weighted toward older, whiter, religious and conservative voters. The Associated Press’ exit polls showed 63 percent of Tillis voters were white evangelicals or born-again Christians, 43 percent were between the ages of 45 and 64, and 95 percent were white. They were also from smaller towns and concentrated in the foothills and mountains.

Those demographics suggest Tillis might have gained his winning edge from a backlash against the recent federal court ruling that ended the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. On that issue, Tillis’ record helped him.

What new ideas Tillis will advocate in Washington remains vague despite record spending in the race and endless TV ads from both sides. That lack of a clear agenda now becomes the first challenge for Tillis and his party. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the party’s likely majority leader, said the midterm results showed “it’s time to go in a new direction,” but he didn’t say where.

Reliable Republican

No doubt Tillis as a U.S. senator will support the usual GOP to-do list: Cut taxes on the wealthy and corporations, cut regulations, cut social programs, feed the defense industry and threaten military action. The state version of that agenda has not worked well in North Carolina, but Tillis can be expected to endorse it in Washington with the “rubber stamp” regularity he attributed to Hagan’s backing of the president’s agenda.

With Tillis’ joining Republican Richard Burr in the Senate, North Carolina will have two senators opposed to all things Obama. That’s not helpful to North Carolina nor representative of the more diverse and increasingly urbanized state it is. Obama narrowly won the state in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012. Those election results presented a more accurate image of North Carolina than Tuesday’s numbers.

While Tillis’ political record is discouraging, his personal story is impressive. A Florida native, he came from a working-class background and began working full time after high school. He settled in Mecklenburg County in 1998 and relied on his instincts and dogged effort to succeed in business and rise rapidly in politics. We can only hope that while in Washington he will remember where he came from and apply his work ethic and ambition to serving all of North Carolina’s people.

Hagan’s miscues

With Hagan’s loss, North Carolina loses a capable senator who was willing to compromise. She reflected a moderate, business-friendly type of politics that long defined Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina before Tillis let tea party lawmakers take the state on an embarrassing and destructive right-wing adventure.

But in some measure, Hagan let moderation drain the meaning from her record and her candidacy. Perhaps she and Barack Obama lost in North Carolina because she judged that it was too risky to run with him here.

Despite media exaggerations about Obama’s being toxic, he enjoys considerable support in portions of a state that was instrumental in electing the nation’s first African-American president. Embracing Obama might have boosted Hagan’s crucial African-American vote and stirred liberals who were less than enthused about her re-election. Instead, Hagan relied on the design and methods of the Obama get-out-the-vote effort without the Obama part.

Hagan also might have suffered from a campaign that overstated Tillis’ role in cutting education funding but failed to criticize the broader GOP agenda in the state legislature. She should have argued for a state that would lead the New South, not rejoin the Old South.

And she should have made jobs her campaign’s centerpiece. Instead, voters heard mostly about how Tillis cut education funding and how National Journal rated her the “most moderate senator.” Now she’ll soon be the most moderate former senator, and Tillis will be in Washington. There, we will see whether he can broaden his political approach to fit an office in which he will represent all of North Carolina.