Late last year, when I began thinking seriously about the battle for the Senate, I assumed that North Carolina was ripe for a Republican victory. Romney had won the state, albeit very narrowly. Moreover first-term Democrat Kay Hagan lacked a strong family name and a long history of electoral success (unlike Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Mary Landrieu in Louisiana). With the “fundamentals” (to the extent that I retain any ability to assess them) looking bad for the Democrats, I couldn’t help being optimistic about North Carolina.
In the past nine months, the fundamentals have, indeed, favored Republicans. Tom Cotton, behind in early polling, moved ahead of Pryor. Similarly, Bill Cassidy opened up a small lead on Landrieu. Later on, Republican Dan Sullivan closed the gap on Mark Begich, and then moved ahead of him.
The trend was similar even in purple states that President Obama carried. Early on, Iowa looked like a Democratic hold. Yet Joni Ernst now seems to be running no worse than even with Democrat Bruce Braley. And in Colorado, Mark Udall’s small lead turned into a small deficit.
Even New Hampshire, which once looked pretty safe for incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, has apparently become highly competitive. When Scott Brown pulled roughly even in a New England College poll a few weeks ago, that poll seemed like an outlier. But a new poll by the same firm gives Brown a slight (statistically insignificant) lead, while another recent poll (by High Point) has Brown only two points behind (also statistically insignificant).
In “reddish” North Carolina, though, Hagan has led Republican Thom Tillis in poll after poll throughout the campaign season. Why?
For one thing, Tillis has been an easy target for Hagan. He is Speaker of the North Carolina House, which apparently became unpopular due to its enactment of big budget cuts. In addition, Hagan had a big financial advantage, which she used to attack Tillis non-stop for his role in the cuts.
The process was reminiscent of the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama had the built-in disadvantage of presiding over a bad economy, just as Hagan has the built-in disadvantage of Obama, whose approval rating in North Carolina stands at 39 percent.
But in 2012, Obama overcame his disadvantage by defining Romney in highly negative terms through a well-timed ad blitz. By the time Romney knew what had hit him, he was behind and could never quite catch up. It looked like the same thing might be happening to Tillis.
Tillis is fighting back, though. Naturally, he’s sticking to the main play in his playbook — Hagan’s record of support for Obama and Harry Reid. This is the approach that worked so well for Tom Cotton and others.
In addition, Tillia has opened up a new front — national security. Hagan serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She has missed half of its hearings this year, including one in February on the rise of ISIS. Hagan had to admit that she attended a fundraiser the same day.
During his most recent debate with Hagan, Tillis partially botched this issue. He stated that Hagan missed the ISIS hearing in her capacity as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hagan isn’t on that committee, as she promptly pointed out.
By misidentifying the committee in question, Tillis stole some of his own thunder. Nonetheless, the matter remains a problem for Hagan. Nor is Tillis backing off. Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard reports on a recent ad in which the voice-over says: ““While ISIS grew, Obama did nothing. Senator Hagan did cocktails.”
Tillis’ late push may be paying off. Today, I finally saw a poll that has him in the lead (though not a statistically significant one). The poll, by Survey USA, puts Tillis at 46 percent and Hagan at 45 percent. It comes on the heels of a High Point survey which has both candidates at 40 percent.
Perhaps North Carolina is finally following the national trend.
Despite leading Tillis consistently until now, I haven’t seen a poll in which Hagan’s support exceeds 50 percent. The RCP average has her at 45.1 (1.5 points better than Tillis). That’s not a good place for an incumbent to be.
If the race stays tight, turnout will be the key to victory. According to Warren, the state Democratic party is said to be a “mess.” However, the Dems did an excellent job of getting out the vote in 2008 and 2012. The apparatus that accomplished this presumably will be available to Hagan. But can it repeat the feat when the candidate is Hagan, not the formerly charismatic Obama?
The Democrats may have to. Insiders are estimating that Hagan will need 20 percent of voters to be African-American. The Weekly Standard’s Warren quotes one Democratic consultant who says, “I don’t see it.”
North Carolina is now looking like one the two or three most competitive Senate races of the year. To help Thom Tillis win it, you can contribute here. I just did.