DURHAM, N.C. — Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican rival, state legislature speaker Thom Tillis, were three-quarters of the way through their Oct. 7 debate when Tillis got noticeably rattled.
For forty minutes, the candidates had parried moderator George Stephanopoulos’ questions from their main attack positions: Hagan telling voters that Tillis presided over a hard-right legislature that upended decades of moderate compromise; Tillis diligently associating Hagan with President Obama. Both knew party bosses and major donors were watching, considering whether to sink more advertising dollars into the race — which has already seen $37 million in outside spending, more than any other congressional contest this year — or allocate those resources elsewhere in the national fight for control of the U.S. Senate.
Now the candidates had a chance to address each other directly. Hagan asked Tillis why he had opposed legislation aimed at closing a gender pay gap in which North Carolina women earn about 82 cents on the dollar compared with men.
Then came the money. Unleashed by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, outside groups bought millions of dollars in attack ads. Tillis has counted on the support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, National Rifle Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads Super PAC, which, along with other groups, has provided $6.5 million in ads blasting Hagan, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency watchdog. Americans for Prosperity, the conservative organization backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch, produced a video in which an interviewer asks people in the liberal bastion of Asheville, “What has Kay Hagan done for you?”
Yet Hagan and the Democrats have spent significantly more. The Sunlight Foundation found that pro-Hagan outside groups have bought what it called a “jaw-dropping” $18.8 million in attack ads. One of the most productive lines of critique has been tarring Tillis with the legislature’s cuts to the state education budget. In a comical ad paid for by the Senate Majority PAC — headed by former staffers of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — a schoolteacher pushed out of her classroom asks a yacht owner if she can hold her class on his boat. The funding numbers are more complex than the ad makes them out to be: While classroom spending has failed to keep up with the number of students or inflation, some teacher salaries have risen. Nonetheless, observers say the attack is working.
All of this bodes well for Hagan, but holds foreboding for Tillis. In the latest New York Times/CBS/YouGov poll, the Republican enjoys a solid majority among men (51 percent versus Hagan’s 40). But Hagan is winning bigger among women, who make up the majority of the state’s voters, 49-34. “Women identify with her,” former Republican strategist Carter Wrenn told a Raleigh news channel last month. “Another part is that education matters more as an issue.”
And while Tillis has a dominant lead among whites (50 percent to Hagan’s 37), he is getting trounced among black voters: just 7 percent are in his camp, compared with 83 percent for Hagan. Anger is high over the actions of the state legislature he led, said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP. “It’s mean-spirited, it’s an attack on the poor, it’s an attack on women, and people are starting to wake up.” The disparity is so great that even the new North Carolina voting law curtailing early voting and ending same-day registration — upheld by the Supreme Court this month even after a U.S. federal court found it will disproportionately keep blacks from the polls — may not be enough to make a difference for Tillis.
Those advantages have accounted for Hagan’s lead — 44.8 percent for Hagan versus 43.4 percent for Tillis on Oct. 17 according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls, though the numbers shift daily. The worse news for Tillis has been that national polls suggest the GOP does not need North Carolina to take over the Senate, while Democrats need to retain Hagan’s seat if there is to be any hope of maintaining parity. With the GOP facing closer races in Kansas and Iowa, as well as more important battles such as party leader Mitch McConnell’s close race in Kentucky, Tillis’ trailing margin in North Carolina could be enough to convince donors they’re better off sending money elsewhere.
Asked during a postdebate press conference why he’d gotten rattled over equal pay, Tillis came out swinging. “I get rattled when I think about my daughter,” he said. “I get rattled when I think about my grandmother … I get rattled when somebody thinks that I would think anything other than it is a disgrace to think that an employer wouldn’t pay women equal pay for equal work.” A reporter began asking about his deficit in the polls among women; Tillis deflected the question back to Obamacare. The reporter tried to follow up, but Tillis cut him off, looking for another reporter, who he hoped would change the subject. “I think I’m going to let a woman ask a question,” he said.