What’s the Matter with North Carolina?

Republicans are surging across the country, but Kay Hagan may hold on

Kay Hagan, Thom Tillis (AP)
• October 9, 2014 11:45 am


Republicans had high hopes going into the 2014 election cycle, and while this year’s midterms probably won’t deliver a massive GOP wave on the scale of 2010’s "shellacking," most poll watchers think Republicans have a good chance of retaking the Senate. They just might have to do it without winning North Carolina, which had seemed like one the most obvious pickup targets.

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll published Wednesday shows incumbent Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) with a slight lead—47 percent to 45 percent—over Republican challenger Thom Tillis. A pizza deliveryman running as a Libertarian is picking up a not insignificant four percent of the vote. The poll is relatively good news for Tillis, who had been behind by as much as seven points in previous surveys. However, he still trails Hagan by an average of 3.4 percent, according to Real Clear Politics, at a time when other Republican challengers in close races are opening up leads on their Democratic opponents.

At this point, North Carolina, a state Mitt Romney carried (barely) in 2012, appears less likely to elect a Republican Senator than Colorado or Iowa, states Obama won comfortably. What’s going on here? What have Republicans done to blow it this time?

The answer, ironically, is that in North Carolina, Republicans could end up being victims of their own success. In 2010, a year that saw Democrats absolutely wiped out at the state level, the GOP took full control of the North Carolina state legislature for the first time since 1870. Thom Tillis was elected speaker of the House.

Two years later, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory became the first Republican governor in two decades, and began to implement a conservative policy agenda that has infuriated liberals across the country. The New York Times editorial board, for example, has on several occasions condemned the state’s GOP leaders for "tearing down years of progress" under Democratic rule. Beginning in 2013, liberal groups in North Carolina launched "Moral Monday" protests against the GOP’s "extremist" agenda.

These groups and their allies in the Democratic Party have been targeting the North Carolina—and other GOP-dominated states such as Kansas and Wisconsin—for years. In some ways, having Tillis as the GOP candidate plays right into their hands. Beating him would give them something to show for their efforts. Even if Democrats lose the Senate, defeating a Republican like Tillis (or Sam Brownback, or Scott Walker), would be a decent consolation prize—a boon to their efforts to claw back the heavy loses suffered in 2010.

Tillis was the GOP’s chosen candidate in a crowded primary, but he is also the face of (state-level) incumbency in an anti-incumbent year. Governor McCrory’s approval numbers mirror those of Obama. Tillis has been an easy target for Hagan, who isn’t very popular or even well known in North Carolina, and who likely would have run against the GOP-controlled legislature regardless of who Republicans nominated.

"Kay Hagan is not running as the incumbent senator asking to be reelected, she is really running as a challenger to a speaker of the state house," says John Hood, president and chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a right-leaning think tank based in Raleigh. Hagan has succeeded in localizing the race in a way that other Democratic incumbents have been unable to do.

Hagan has also been helped by a significant fundraising advantage. According to Politico, her campaign plans to spend more than $11 million on ads attacking Tillis’s record as speaker, many of them focusing on state cuts to education. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other outside groups have contributed millions more. Conservative outside groups have poured money into the race as well, but Tillis’s campaign has struggled to keep pace.

"If you’re not on the air in a significant way, you’re losing," Hood says. "If you get way out spent on the air and you are a challenger that starts to look in voters minds like an incumbent, you become a Republican whose fate is note necessarily tied to national trends."

Republicans concede that the bombardment of negative ads succeeded in driving Tillis’s poll numbers down. Ironically, Hagan was able to use her fundraising advantage as the incumbent in the race to define her opponent as the incumbent. But support for Hagan has remained relatively flat. "They’ve thrown the kitchen sink at him, and while that happened Hagan’s numbers barely moved up," a GOP strategist said. "That means people don’t care much for her candidacy. She's pretty much hit her ceiling, meanwhile there’s room for Tillis to jump."

At the same time, the enormous amount of money spent on Hagan’s behalf is money that could have been spent in other close races, where the GOP is performing much better. Those races are also in states—Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana—that are much more reliably Republican than North Carolina has become in recent years.

Republicans in the state are optimistic that they can shift the narrative in the coming weeks, and focus on Hagan’s record, which has come under increasing scrutiny. Voters will soon be treated to ads highlighting the stimulus funding that went to a company owned by Hagan’s husband, and Hagan’s admission (finally) that she skipped a classified intelligence briefing on the rise of ISIS in order to attend a fundraiser in New York City. "The media narrative is that Hagan is running a perfect campaign," said the GOP strategist. "No way. She just hadn't been challenged. She is now, and she’s starting to crack."

Another popular media narrative is the possibility that Libertarian Sean Haugh could play spoiler in the race. That’s a real possibility, but Republicans don’t expect Haugh’s poll numbers to translate into actual turnout on Election Day, and note that he seems to be drawing more from Hagan than he is from Tillis.

Hood says most outside observers trying to make sense of the race are missing the simple fact that "in North Carolina, control of the U.S. Senate is just that big a deal. The Hagan-Tillis race is basically a Hagan-Tillis race. It’s not Hagan vs. the GOP, or Tillis vs. Obama."

At this point in the race, Tillis needs to pick up about 60 percent of the remaining undecided vote to have a chance, Hood says. "That’s not unheard of, but it’s also not likely."