Sunday, September 14, 2014

Race of the Day- North Carolina U.S. Senate

51 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

The Tar Heel State is holding one of the most watched elections of 2014. The result may very well determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Republicans have certainly been counting on this race as the one that might get them to 51 seats. There have been a lot of polls and momentum seems to have swung back and forth between the nominees. Ultimately, turnout and the national mood of a midterm electorate could determine the outcome. It may be very close at the end, or outside factors could contribute to one candidate or another pulling ahead in the final days.

North Carolina is certainly a state with a record of tossing incumbent Senators out of office after just one term. One of the larger surprises of the 2008 cycle was the victory of Democrat Kay Hagan over the decades long nationally prominent Republican freshman Senator Elizabeth Dole. The GOP incumbent had been considered a heavy favorite for reelection, but her efforts were harmed by having spent too much time in Washington instead of focusing on home, and a television ad attacking Hagan backfired in a big way. The Presidential year of 2008 saw record numbers of African-Americans, as well as many other components of the Democrat base turning out, as Barack Obama carried the state, and Hagan was elected as well on his coattails.

Republicans have certainly bounced back a bit in both 2010 and 2012 in the state, as the party picked up a handful of Congressional seats as well as winning the Governorship. While closely contested, North Carolina was one of just a couple of states that switched colors in 2012 as Obama lost to Mitt Romney. It was clear that Hagan, who did not seem to make much of a visible impact as a freshman Senator, would be vulnerable to a GOP challenge in 2014. For months, there was speculation on who might challenge her, and ultimately, several of the biggest names mentioned took a pass. Still, a large field of eight Republicans competed in the primary.

Under North Carolina law, a candidate needed to receive at least 40 percent of the vote in the May primary in order to avoid a runoff election in the summer. Hagan had her place on the fall ballot secure, although nearly a quarter of North Carolina Democrats voted for someone else, which had to have been a bit of a surprise. With such a large Republican field though, it looked very possible that a politically damaging and financially draining runoff loomed as a likely result. Republicans seemed content to face that challenge, as long as the strongest candidate was eventually nominated.

Perhaps by default, the candidate backed by establishment political and business Republicans in the state and in Washington D.C. was State House Speaker Thom Tillis. His top primary opponents in the field were Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor who led their organization in the state. He was understandably backed by many Evangelicals in the state. Political newcomer Greg Brannon, a Tea Party backed physician was also running and some Republicans feared that his rhetorical style, as well as questions regarding his background could make him a sure loser if he were to somehow ride the wave of conservative anti-politician discontent to the nomination. As the voting approached, it remained more clear that Tillis would indeed finish first, but that Brannon might advance to the runoff and that it would not be a good situation for the party. Supporters of Tillis breathed a sigh of relief though, their candidate outperformed some polls and won nearly 46 percent of the vote, clinching the nomination outright. Brannon was nearly 19 points behind, and to the surprise of some, endorsed the winner Tillis.

The GOP nominee had some momentum coming out of the victory and the GOP primary turnout in the state enforced perceptions that Hagan was in big political trouble. However, while voters in the state are not pleased with the Democrats who run most of Washington D.C., they also have had a lot of problems with the Republicans in charge of Raleigh. The unpopularity of the state legislature, in which Tillis is the Speaker of the House, has been an issue in the race. During times when the legislature was most in the news, Tillis's standing in polls have taken a hit, and then he seemingly does better when they are not in session. Another factor is the presence of a Libertarian candidate in the race, who while not much of a political force on his own, has been polling at a number several points higher than Libertarians typically get. There clearly seem to be voters in the state who are dissatisfied with both candidates, and the third option has been hurting Tillis more. It is definitely not without precedent for a Libertarian to cost a Republican nominee a Senate victory in recent cycles.

As Hagan and Tillis continue to figuratively slug it out throughout the state, special interest groups and PACs are pouring tons of money into the contest. Republicans want the race to be nationalized on issues such as Hagan's vote for Obamacare, while Democrats try to increase their base turnout by trying to make the contest about issues such as the minimum wage. A debate was recently held, in which it appears that Tillis got the best out of the incumbent in the exchanges, but there was much written about how he might have come across as not deferential enough to a female opponent.

The polls have seesawed, without a lot of explanation as to why each candidate has moved ahead. In the past week, Democrats have been the ones happy about the most recent polls. A Rasmussen Reports survey showed a significant swing from a Tillis lead to a six point advantage for Hagan. Other polls during the week show a much smaller lead for the Democrat. While I might have been prepared not long ago to say this race was "Leans Republican", right not it certainly looks like a Tossup.

Democrats throughout the country believe that this is a Senate seat in the south that they can hold and that it might save their majority. If the recent polls hold up, that is certainly a possibility, although Republicans might still have a few other avenues to get to 51 seats. I still feel though that ultimately, this race will probably fall in favor of Tillis. For one thing, the support for the Libertarian, Sean Haugh, a pizza deliveryman, might fall before Election Day and that his support is currently overstated in polls, to the benefit of Hagan.

Turnout though will probably tell the biggest tale. In order to win in 2008, Hagan needed overwhelming support from African-Americans, as well as college students who tend to lean liberal. While North Carolina has gone from overwhelmingly Democrat to very conservative, the state has become far more purple as many urban professionals from other states have settled there. Still, Republicans should have an advantage in a midterm election, especially in a state that Barack Obama did indeed lose as incumbent the last time, and where he is now less popular than he was two years ago.

Hagan will try to stress her independence from the White House in the final 50 days of this campaign, but her voting record is going to still be a major issue. The Republican is pushing for more debates, feeling that he can succeed in pointing our her previous votes in those forums. For many reasons, Tillis might not have been the perfect candidate to oppose her, but direction that key Senate races are likely to go nationally will probably be enough to allow him to pull off a tight victory.

Tillis campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 10 D (6 Safe, 3 Leans, 1 Tossup), 14 R (5 Safe, 2 Likely, 4 Leans, 3 Tossup) 
Overall predicted thus far: 44 D, 44 R (net Republican gain of 6)


At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Conservative Democrat said...

Hagan is the niece of the late Florida Governor Lawton Chiles (D).


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