Senator Kay Hagan is being painted as a creature of Washington. 

North Carolina Voters Must Pick Between Negatives

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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If Republicans are in control of both houses of Congress next year -- which is looking probable two weeks before the elections -- House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell could use some guidance from North Carolina: Don't overreach.

As of now, in a race that could go either way, the incumbent Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is a slight favorite over Republican Thom Tillis for one reason: Her challenger is speaker of the Republican-led state House of Representatives, which is about as unpopular in North Carolina as Congress.

The Hagan campaign calculates it offsets any national tide favoring Republicans by linking Tillis to the party's rule in Raleigh, the state capital. The senator always refers to her opponent as Speaker Tillis, not Mr. Tillis, Thom Tillis or Tillis. That might be a credential in some states. Not North Carolina.

Previously, Republicans were salivating over their prospects in the state. Tillis turned back right-wing primary challengers and was the strongest general-election candidate. Allies including the Koch brothers and Karl Rove's group spent millions assailing, and presumably softening up, Hagan.

But Tillis is haunted by the unpopular record of the Republicans who control state government. They slashed taxes, especially for the affluent; cut social services; prevented the expansion of Medicaid for poor people; alienated women's-rights activists; and enacted measures making it harder to vote that principally affected black and young voters.

Republicans say Tillis has finally gotten his footing and is competitive, maybe even a point or two ahead; private Democratic polling shows a steady advantage for Kagan of about three points.

The Republican candidate passes up no opportunity to link Hagan to President Barack Obama, whose favorability in the Tar Heel State is about five points below his mediocre national rating. Obamacare, the scandal over substandard care for veterans and gridlock in Washington are portrayed as Obama-Hagan messes.

Last week, the Tillis campaign was playing up the role of the president and the Democratic senator in the rise of Islamic State and the handling of a potential Ebola epidemic.

"Senator Hagan has to be held accountable," Tillis said in an interview in Goldsboro. "She has not pounded the table at the Obama incompetence."

Similar criticism has been leveled at Democrats elsewhere. But Hagan has an advantage: She can use Tillis's unpopular record as fodder for attacks by linking him to the state government's decisions to defund Planned Parenthood, reject pay equity for women, refuse Medicaid expansion and cut voting opportunities. These issues energize the Democratic base, women and minorities.

The conflict is most heated on the topic of education, a top issue this year in North Carolina. Tillis claims Democrats are falsely accusing him of cutting funding for schools, which he says was actually increased. Democrats say funding didn't keep up with population growth and inflation, so the amount allotted was a reduction.

This may be the most expensive race per voter in the U.S. with a final tally, counting spending by outside groups, of as much as $100 million. With both sides flush, money probably won't be a determining factor.

What is critical for Hagan -- Democrats must win this race to have a shot at retaining their Senate majority -- is the so-called ground game: the voter identification and turnout effort. Democrats, who report they'll have 10,000 volunteers are optimistic, especially when it comes to the black community agitated by Republican action in state government.

Republicans say that victory depends on holding the libertarian candidate, a pizza deliveryman who drains more support from Tillis, to less than 5 percent of the vote.

Ultimately, though, this race probably will be decided by whether voters on Election Day are thinking about their distaste for Obama and Washington or their negative feelings about Republicans and Raleigh.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Albert R Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net