Midterm Battle

North Carolina’s Senate Race Could All Come Down to a Backlash

Could Thom Tillis, tipped to win Tuesday’s GOP Senate primary, be the poster boy for the state’s conservative revolution? Democrats fighting for Sen. Kay Hagan’s reelection hope so.

05.05.14 9:45 AM ET

Political campaigns always have an ideal opponent in mind—an elected official with a long record to attack and no money to spend.

In North Carolina’s Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis, Democrats think they have found half of an ideal opponent for Sen. Kay Hagan’s race for reelection: a well-funded, Chamber of Commerce-, Karl Rove-, and NRA-approved political veteran who presides over North Carolina’s headline-grabbing state House.

The stakes could not be higher in a race that could determine both the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and the political destiny of a state that has whipped from Obama purple-state success story in 2008 to its first Republican legislature in more than a century just two years later. North Carolina’s see-saw dynamic has drawn more than $15 million of outside money from both sides looking to swing the momentum their way in 2014.

Since 2011, the general assembly has blown through a checklist of conservative priorities like an ace shot at target practice. Constitutional ban on gay marriage? Done. Estate tax? Gone. Photo ID for voting? Required. Abortion restrictions, funding for vouchers and charter schools, looser restrictions for fracking, and cuts to unemployment insurance? All are now North Carolina law three years after Republicans took over the general assembly and installed Tillis as House speaker.

On Tuesday, Tillis will face seven other candidates in the GOP primary, including Rand Paul-endorsed doctor Greg Brannon and Mike Huckabee’s pick, fellow Baptist minister Mark Harris. But with a recent PPP poll showing Tillis pushing well above the 40 percent mark that would allow him to avoid a runoff, Democrats are preparing their playbooks for a race against Tillis, with his role as House speaker as their central theme.

“There are an awful lot of unaffiliated voters and even Republicans who have been repulsed by this general assembly,” said Randy Voller, chairman of the North Carolina state Democratic Party. As evidence, Voller pointed to the weekly Moral Monday protests of the assembly’s legislative agenda that led to nearly 1,000 arrests at the Capitol during the last legislative session. “If you can take the anger and energy from that movement and turn it into action at the ballot box, that’s how Kay Hagan will win.”

To Voller’s point, a recent Elon University poll showed the North Carolina general assembly with just a 27 percent approval rating, compared to 49 percent who disapprove.

“I don’t think it’s surprising to see a legislative body with such low approval ratings, but what is surprising is to see one so consistently down that hasn’t bounded back up when they’re not in session,” said Dr. Kenneth Fernandez, the director of the Elon poll. “You look at the governor, the president, Congress, everyone seems to have bottomed out and are now picking up a little bit. We didn’t see that with the state legislature.”

Fernandez said Elon’s polling showed Tillis with triple the name identification of his GOP primary rivals, in part because of his high profile as House speaker.

For Republican primary voters, Tillis’s record leading the state House will probably be his biggest selling point. The same PPP poll that showed Tillis handily winning likely GOP primary voters also painted a picture of Tuesday’s electorate as mostly male, significantly rural, and very, very conservative. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they do not believe in evolution, 52 percent said they do not believe President Obama was born in the United States, and just 27 percent said they think the U.S. Department of Education continue to exist. Just a quarter said they think the federal government should have the power to set a minimum wage for American workers.

While Democratic operatives see Tillis’s leadership record as a boon to work with, Hagan goes into November with significant challenges of her own, not the least of which is a 35 percent approval rating and a 2010 vote for the Affordable Care Act, which remains unpopular with a majority of North Carolinians. She faces the uphill climb of getting reelected in a midterm year after winning for the first time in 2008 against Sen. Elizabeth Dole with then-wildly popular Obama at the top of the ticket.

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“In a presidential election year, Republicans make up 33 percent of voters casting ballots in North Carolina,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of politics at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. “When you go into a midterm year, that 33 percent becomes 37 percent to 38 percent. So what you’re dealing with here is a base election rather than a swing voter election just because of the dynamics of who shows up.”

Bitzer said the dynamic that could best play to Hagan’s favor is the potential backlash against the general assembly and Tillis’s role leading it.

“Can Kay Hagan use that anger and animosity and make Thom Tillis the poster boy for that Democratic anger? If they can sustain that energy going into the fall campaign, it could be as close as everybody is thinking,” Bitzer said. “But if you’re just looking at it from a pure numbers perspective, you gotta think this is going to be a Republican year. “

The only chance Hagan has to keep her seat rests on convincing voters like Leonardo Williams to go to the polls in November and vote for her. A 33-year-old high school music teacher, Williams was so outraged by the assembly’s cuts to public education funding that he attended the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh last summer.

But after eight years in the classroom, Williams said he may have to leave teaching because he worries he cannot afford to raise a family on a long-frozen North Carolina teacher’s salary.

“It has brought me to tears several times to think about it,” he said. “I just love it there, but I may have to find some way to say, “Mr. Williams won’t be back next year.’”

Williams said the Republican candidates’ positions on education funding “literally gave me goose bumps,” but he’s not enthusiastic about voting for the Democrats, either: “It’s almost like you’re having to choose the lesser of two evils.”

Williams said he’ll “probably” vote for Hagan in November, but he’s not sure.

“Kay Hagan is going to have to get some muscle and look at what the masses of North Carolina are asking for,” he said. “I think politicians get caught between what the masses are looking for and what the money is looking for. That’s when people become politicians, and that’s when the trouble starts.”