The Senate election in North Carolina is very simple. If it’s about education, Democrats win. If it’s about Ebola, Republicans win.
For months, first term Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan has managed to cling to slim lead that has defied national factors. While Democrats in states that Barack Obama won twice like Colorado and Iowa have fallen behind their GOP opponents, Hagan has managed so far to hold off Republican challenger Thom Tillis. in a race that has been dominated by local issues. But as Election Day approaches and national and international issues have become more important, Hagan’s lead is slipping in a race that could determine control of the Senate.
Hagan has been long considered vulnerable in a GOP leaning state and national Republicans celebrated when Tillis, the Speaker of the North Carolina House, won a fiercely contested primary against two more conservative candidates in May. But scars left by that primary took time to heal. Tillis was further wounded by the deep unpopularity of many of the policies pushed through the North Carolina State House under his leadership. With the GOP controlling the governor's mansion and both houses of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, the state has cut education funding, passed a voter ID law, restricted access to abortion and weakened environmental standards.
In particular, Democrats have used the cuts to education funding to attack Tillis. One national Democrat marveled that “We have successfully made the race about public education, which is a miracle.” But, with less than three weeks left, U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and fear of the Ebola virus may change the narrative.
The shift in public attention has played to Tillis’s advantage, taking attention away from his unpopular actions in Raleigh and focusing them on unpopular decisions of the Obama administration in Washington. In particular, Hagan has been wounded by flip-flopping on a travel ban from affected countries in West Africa and steady attacks that she missed a hearing on ISIS to attend a fundraiser. Furthermore, after North Carolina’s legislative session dragged on through the summer, Tillis has finally been free to spend more time on the campaign trail. But the race is as likely to be determined by outside groups as by the candidates.
So far, the Senate race has already set an all-time record for spending by superPACs with nearly 56 million in publicly disclosed money already spent on the race. This has been roughly evenly divided between groups supporting Tillis and Hagan. In addition, the Koch-affiliated group Americans for Prosperity has run negative ads against Hagan using “dark money,” which need not be disclosed.
Hagan maintains a slight advantage, though. Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge that the incumbent has run a good campaign and her get-out-the-vote operation is considered far more robust than her opponent’s. But Hagan is still polling consistently under 50 percent in a Republican leaning state and outside groups supporting Tillis have committed to spending millions of dollars on the air in the state until the election.
Can she hold off Tillis? It’s tough enough for a Democrat to win a Republican leaning state in 2014 in the best of circumstances, let alone in the midst of a panic about Ebola.