To win the Senate, Republicans must win North Carolina. While it’s mathematically possible to take the Senate without ousting Democratic senator Kay Hagan, the chances of that happening are close to zero. For Republicans, North Carolina is necessary. It’s the key to control of the Senate.
It’s number six on my list. That is, there are five states where capturing Democratic seats appears more likely—West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Louisiana, Arkansas. Then comes North Carolina. Assuming Republicans don’t lose any of their own seats, those six pickups would give Republicans a 51-49 majority. And with it, the political equation in Washington would change. Republicans would be on offense, President Obama and Harry Reid on defense.
But winning in North Carolina is no cinch for Republicans. Two facts stand out. One, Hagan is extremely vulnerable. She’s a Reid follower who voted for Obamacare and most of the president’s agenda. Two, there’s a budding consensus that State House speaker Thom Tillis is the Republican with the best chance of defeating Hagan. Democrats, including Reid, certainly think he is.
In this circumstance, touting Hagan is too tame a tactic for Democrats. So she and Reid are playing hardball, intervening in the GOP Senate primary against Tillis. In Hagan’s first ad last week, she attacked Tillis for commenting favorably on Obamacare but criticizing Hagan for voting for it. “Watch close,” the radio spot said. “Seems Thom Tillis wants it both ways.” In truth, he doesn’t. Tillis advocates repeal of Obamacare. A day before Hagan struck, Reid’s Senate Majority PAC began airing $1 million in TV ads that link Tillis to two staffers who were fired for having affairs with lobbyists. Tillis shared an apartment with one of them and both got severance pay when they were fired.
The Tillis campaign accused Hagan and Reid of “meddling” in the May 6 primary. Indeed, they are. They aim for one of three outcomes: cause Tillis to lose in the primary, be forced into a runoff on July 15, or at least be significantly tarnished if he faces Hagan in the general election. Neither ad, by the way, mentioned Tillis’s two opponents in the Republican primary, Baptist preacher Mark Harris and physician Greg Brannon.
Tillis is only one of Hagan’s worries. She was lucky to be elected in the first place in 2008. Obama attracted a huge African-American turnout, which allowed him to win the state and Hagan to unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole. An added boost came from Dole’s clumsy campaign tactics.
Hagan hasn’t developed a strong identity in Washington, nor was she a high-visibility figure in North Carolina either—until the past six months. What changed was the exposure as a lie of Obama’s promise that folks could keep their health insurance. Like other Democratic senators, Hagan had routinely said the same thing and was caught on tape saying so.
When Americans for Prosperity began running TV ads with video of her repeating Obama’s false claim, she panicked. When questioned about her statement, she ran away from reporters at one point. She wrongly blamed insurers, not Obamacare, for the cancellation of health care policies. And as her poll numbers tanked, she rose on the Republican target list. Her job approval rating is now in the high 30s to low 40s, the same as Obama’s in the state. This is dangerously low. History is no help. No Democratic senator has been reelected in North Carolina since Sam Ervin in 1968.
Hagan, 60, has a problem with the one-third of the electorate that is “unaffiliated.” Polls show she’s attracting roughly 40 percent of this bloc. She needs a minimum of 50 percent to win. It won’t come easily. She’ll have to do what Obama did to Mitt Romney: make the GOP candidate more unappealing than she is.
Tillis, 53, hasn’t polled well, but he insists he has a legitimate shot at getting the minimum of 40 percent to win the primary and avoid a runoff. He ran first in a Public Policy Polling survey in early April but with only 18 percent of the primary vote. A week earlier, a SurveyUSA poll put him at 23 percent.
But his candidacy is bolstered by a theory. It holds that he, alone among the Republicans, can win a statewide majority. As a mainstream conservative, he can tap into the “unaffiliated” vote more effectively than Harris or Brannon can. Harris, who led the successful drive to put traditional marriage into the state constitution, is faulted for dwelling excessively on social issues, and Brannon is a libertarian and Tea Party favorite whose ideas are controversial. That’s the theory anyway.
Tillis has the backing of what’s known by its critics as the Republican establishment. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, and the super-PAC American Crossroads are backing him. The Chamber and Crossroads are running TV ads. An implicit threat comes with funding by the establishment, that it will dry up if Tillis isn’t the nominee.
Tillis’s strength is the impressive record as speaker he’s running on. In 2012, North Carolina was the best GOP state in the country. Republicans won the governorship and large majorities in the legislature and proceeded to enact a sweeping conservative agenda that included tax and spending cuts, reduced unemployment benefits, and a voter ID law. The tax cuts have been credited with spurring the fastest drop in unemployment in the country—from 10.4 percent in January 2011 to 6.4 percent in March. And the benefit cuts no doubt prompted some of the jobless to prefer work.
But Tillis has personal vulnerabilities that Hagan and Reid have already begun to focus on. The romance scandal is one. Another is his controversial appointment of donors to the University of North Carolina board. Still another is his listing of a degree from the University of Maryland. It was from the university’s distance-learning arm.
Though it’s his first campaign for any elected office, Harris, 48, is a formidable figure. The former president of the state Baptist Federation and pastor of a large Baptist church in Charlotte, he’s a strong speaker and probably the most dynamic of the candidates. “I’m not given to nuance,” he told me. “What’s inside comes out.” Last week, he spent $300,000 to air a cable ad. It may be the most effective ad of the campaign. Harris is the greatest threat to Tillis. Win or lose, he’s become an important figure in North Carolina politics.
Brannon, 53, has issues, not all of them libertarian ones. He’s been endorsed by GOP senators Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. But a judge recently issued a $250,000 judgment against him for allegedly misleading investors. He’s also been accused of plagiarizing statements used in his campaign.
To win, Democratic consultant Brad Crone says, Republicans will have to get over their differences. “At the end of the day, the social conservatives and the Tea Party folks are going to have to realize they’ve got to pivot back to a candidate who can win on a statewide basis.” That’s Tillis.
Then independents—the “unaffiliated”—will pick the next senator. They dislike all politicians, says political sage Carter Wrenn, “but they dislike Obama the most.” Since he’s increasingly unpopular in North Carolina, “that makes it look like it might break for Republicans.” Thus creating a Republican Senate.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.