In N.C. Senate Race, It's Obama's Record vs. Legislature's

In N.C. Senate Race, It's Obama's Record vs. Legislature's

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - October 30, 2014

CHARLOTTE -- North Carolina helped Barack Obama make history six years ago, when the Illinois senator became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here since Jimmy Carter. That same year, Democrat Kay Hagan defeated Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole, a victory the challenger said reflected voters’ hunger for change.

Four years later, the president and thousands of other Democrats descended upon this Southern city, hoping its demographic diversity would help deliver the state once again. Instead, voters backed Mitt Romney for president -- and a Republican for governor.

The days when Carolinians clamor for Obama are long gone. He isn’t welcome on the campaign trail, and he won’t ever compete in the state again as president. But his legacy will be affected by the outcome of the Senate race here, where Hagan must reconcile what’s left of the Obama coalition with the current political reality: voters who are again hungry for change.

Like many Democrats running for re-election in states Romney won, Hagan has kept her distance from the president throughout the cycle. But in the final days of the campaign, she is touting her connections to some of Obama’s policies, hoping to activate the Democratic base he forged here -- one that doesn’t exist at the same level in other battleground states this year. Hagan’s lead has narrowed to just one point, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows. Her chances of success depend not so much on courting Republicans or conservative independents as on turning out the base.

In addition to the Obama-led campaign infrastructure in the Tar Heel State, Hagan has another advantage her Democratic colleagues elsewhere lack. She has built a seemingly effective offensive campaign, spotlighting an unpopular state legislature, of which her opponent, House Speaker Thom Tillis, is a top leader.

The question that will be answered Tuesday is: Which entity creates the heavier drag -- the president or the legislature?

Tillis and Republicans here have relentlessly tied Hagan to Obama, along with his policies and current events that they argue demonstrate a leadership crisis of competence: ISIS, Ebola, the porous border with Mexico, the VA and the health care law. Tillis also argues that Hagan hasn’t made much of a difference in Washington over the last six years other than helping Democrats get their legislation through.

“She hasn’t authored a single bill that’s gotten to the president’s desk,” Tillis said in an interview after a veterans event at Thelma’s Downhome Cooking in Salisbury. “She has to be held accountable that she has voted, rubber stamp and in lockstep, with Harry Reid for President Obama’s policies.”

Indeed, at campaign stops here, Tillis uses Reid’s name almost as much as he uses Obama’s, hoping to animate Republicans eying the upper chamber majority and play into voters’ disgust with Washington gridlock.

Republicans don’t necessarily need to win North Carolina to gain control of the Senate. But a victory here could help pad a majority, and also signal a reddening of the state ahead of the 2016 presidential race.

Republicans have even used Hagan’s own words from 2008 against her in 2014. An ad sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee features a clip of Hagan campaigning against Dole: “Voting 92 percent of the time with the president, whether you support him or not, doesn't work here in North Carolina.”

But nearly each time these charges are lobbed at Hagan, she punches back with an attack on Tillis’ record in the state legislature, particularly the recent budget that resulted in cuts to education funding and teacher layoffs.

At an early-voting rally in the progressive mountain town of Asheville, where a Trader Joe’s operates across the street from a Bojangles, Hagan made the education cuts central to her stump speech. A campaign volunteer who introduced the senator spoke about her son’s inability to bring home his math textbooks each day. Hagan also touched on other actions by the legislature to curb access to abortions and reduce early voting by one week as part of a voter ID law. Such steps sparked “Moral Monday” protests organized by the local NAACP chapter, which campaign operatives and volunteers say will help drive African-American and other base voters to the polls.

As much as Hagan hopes to use these local dynamics to her advantage, she also needs the president in some ways.

“The first bill I co-sponsored was the president’s signature bill, and that was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act,” Hagan told RCP in a brief interview at Edna’s coffee shop in Asheville when asked if there was anything the president has done that North Carolinians should support.

“Right now the president is supporting increasing the minimum wage,” she noted, before echoing talking points Democratic candidates are using across the country on equal pay, access to contraception and abortion rights, expanding Medicaid coverage under the health care law, and refinancing student loans. “I support the president on policies that are good for North Carolina. … These are things that North Carolinians are interested in, and those are my policies.”

Asked if she would vote for the health care law again, Hagan answered in the affirmative. She pointed to the Medicaid expansion component of the law, which has had particular relevance in the campaign.  The senator is capitalizing on Tillis’ change of course on the issue: He opposed expansion during the GOP primary but has said more recently that the legislature should re-consider it.

The issue resonated with Rene Sutcliffe, a Hagan supporter who wore an Obama T-shirt to the event in Asheville. Recently laid off, Sutcliffe said she has no health insurance and is frustrated that the law allows states to decide whether to take the federal Medicaid dollars.

Like nearly every vulnerable Democrat this cycle, Hagan says she supports the president when it’s right for her state, and doesn’t when it’s not. She mentioned her backing of the Keystone pipeline, her opposition to trade deals and the Democratic budget that included cuts to the military. Still, unlike her vulnerable colleagues, Hagan doesn’t have to be on the defensive as much in the final days, confident in her legislature-referendum strategy.

For his part, Tillis welcomes the legislature vs. Obama/Democrats paradigm. “If the senator is referring to historic tax cuts, historic reductions on unemployment, historic reductions on burdensome regulations, the things that I’ve done as speaker of the House, I agree -- that’s exactly what we’re running on,” he told RCP.

Tillis argued that the state’s education budget has increased since 2011, and pointed to fact-checkers as validation. (Politifact rated Hagan’s claim that he cut $500 million in education half-true.)

“She’s run from the president,” he said. Not a single prominent elected Democrat has come to the state and campaigned with her. If that’s not a testament to six failed years and six years of broken promises, I don’t know what is.”

While Obama hasn’t been to North Carolina to campaign with Hagan, Hillary Clinton headlined a get-out-the-vote rally for her in Charlotte over the weekend, telling supporters, “There is nothing more important for Kay than who turns out.” Former President Bill Clinton will be in Raleigh on Friday to campaign for the incumbent.

Several Republicans have traveled to the state to campaign for Tillis, emphasizing how critical a GOP victory would be to the composition of the upper chamber next year.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of neighboring South Carolina campaigned with Tillis in and around Charlotte on Tuesday, focusing on foreign policy issues. McCain, who has been stumping for candidates in several different battlegrounds, had harsh words for Hagan, who recently took heat for skipping an Armed Services Committee meeting to attend a fundraiser. “Here we are with Americans being beheaded and Sen. Hagan doesn’t even show up for the briefing,” McCain told reporters after touring the Hendrick Motorsports complex with Tillis and Graham. McCain said he hoped Tillis would be in attendance at “Harry Reid’s retirement party” in January.

Mitt Romney also traveled to the state he won in 2012 to campaign for Tillis. Speaking to a crowd of supporters at a sheet metal factory in Raleigh on Wednesday, he said Tillis could help Republicans gain a majority in the Senate, which would stop the president’s policies from moving forward. Romney said the first items of business for a GOP-lead Senate would be approval of the Keystone pipeline and legislative fixes to the health care law. Missing from his pitch was the repeal-and-replace message he pushed during his presidential run.

At the rally, Tillis and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory plugged what they described as the accomplishments of the state legislature over the past two years. While Democrats believe that record will animate voters for Hagan, Republicans don’t seem concerned. Gil Arnold, a retired IBM manager from Raleigh, said Tillis’ tenure as House speaker is an asset. But he acknowledged that the budget could work in Hagan’s favor because education is a central issue in North Carolina. “Luckily Obama’s going to drag her,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the past few weeks of Obama’s miscues and fumbles, [Hagan] probably would be ahead.”

In these final days, the emphasis is on the ground game. Democrats credit the president’s campaign organization for having a built the infrastructure to locate and activate volunteers. But the party notes that it has expanded beyond that over the past two years, with 40 offices across the state and a volunteer base of over 10,000 people. Democratic operatives here say they have seen increases in early voting. “It’s an incredibly high-stakes election for North Carolina because there could not be a clearer contrast between the two candidates,” says Ben Ray, a spokesman for the coordinated effort. “Voters are confronted with a values statement.”

Making that values statement is a pricey undertaking. This contest could become the most expensive in Senate race in history, with the two sides spending an estimated $100 million combined. Not surprisingly, voters here are exhausted by wall-to-wall campaign ads, most of them negative.

Republicans say they also have a ground effort to deliver success, although they decline to give specific numbers. Other groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, have built an organizational team in the state. Donald Bryson, the deputy state director for the conservative group, says it has five field offices and 45 staffers across the state, compared to six staffers in 2012. With commercials becoming white noise at this point, GOTV efforts and face-to-face contacts are critical, organizers say.

That ground game will help make the difference in a race this close. Bryson characterized voters’ choice this way: “When you sit down and think about it and try to figure it out, are the good policies that are affecting my life coming out of D.C. or are they coming out of state house in Raleigh?”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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