Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) has long appeared to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents on the ballot in November. On paper, her low approval ratings, President Obama’s deep unpopularity in North Carolina, and the more-conservative electorate likely to turn out in an off-year election made her odds extremely long. Especially considering that the most electable Republican, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, fought off his Tea Party challengers to capture the party’s nomination.
But the race isn’t turning out as Republicans hoped.
Hagan has managed to hold a small, but persistent lead over Tillis. The first-term Democrat has a 3.7 percent edge in Real Clear Politics’ poll average, and has not trailed in a public survey of the race in over a month.
Much like many Republican governors, Tillis appears to be a victim of conservative overreach in the state government. Under Tillis’ leadership, North Carolina’s legislature has veered sharply to the right. By enacting generous tax cuts for the rich, deep cuts to unemployment insurance, strict restrictions on abortion, and the worst voter-suppression law in the nation (among other deeply controversial policies), Tillis played an integral role in turning North Carolina into an archconservative’s fantasy. That has given Democrats ample opportunity to attack his record, and helped drive his favorability ratings deep underwater.
One particular issue is proving especially devastating to Tillis’ electoral hopes: education. As House Speaker, Tillis successfully pushed through a budget that provides $481 million less for education than the state budget office had suggested in its continuation budget (which estimates how much must be spent to continue providing the current levels of service). The budget, which passed without a single Democratic vote, also left the state with 5,200 fewer teachers and 3,800 fewer teacher assistants.
This vicious 30-second television spot from the National Education Association PAC, released on Tuesday, typifies the attacks:
Given Hagan’s robust fundraising, there is no letup in sight; her campaign has already booked $4.8 million in airtime for this month.
Republicans protest that the criticism is unfair, given that North Carolina’s actual spending on education has increased every year since Tillis became Speaker (just by much less than the continuation budget proposed). Nonetheless, education appears to be an incredibly persuasive argument for Hagan’s campaign.
New message-testing data released on Monday by Democracy Corps and the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund underscore exactly how badly the issue is hurting Tillis. The pollsters presented likely voters in North Carolina with the following statement:
As Speaker of the North Carolina House, Thom Tillis passed a plan that cut five hundred million dollars from our public schools, eliminated 9,000 teaching positions and froze salaries for North Carolina teachers, even though the state currently ranks 46th in teacher pay. And he used that money to help pay for more tax breaks for millionaires and big corporations.
When asked about this, 66 percent said it raises serious doubts in their minds about voting for Tillis, and 43 percent deemed those doubts “very serious.”
By contrast, 80 percent said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who would “make early childhood education a priority by ensuring young children in working families get the early education they need to succeed”; of that 80 percent, 54 percent said they would be “much more likely.” Guess which issue Hagan is emphasizing in interviews with local media.
Democrats have long stressed the importance of localizing the Senate elections, especially in red states, if they hope to keep their majority. In North Carolina, that formula appears to be working well.
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