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Sunday, December 4, 2016

BURLINGTON, N.C. — The clergy gathered in the second-floor conference room at the First Baptist Church here were pondering whether this midterm election might be different from other midterm elections.

The five African-American pastors and bishops represented diverse theological traditions, but all were profoundly unhappy over what North Carolina’s ultra-conservative state government in Raleigh had done to reduce access to the ballot box, cut education spending, and turn back money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

The irony, said the Rev. Dray Bland, pastor of First Baptist on Apple — the street location distinguishes it from the predominantly white First Baptist Church downtown — is that measures designed to make it harder for voters to cast ballots may actually inspire a larger number to do so.

“While many in Raleigh thought they could suppress the vote through these new voter laws, they may increase turnout by rallying the vote,” Bland said. “The apathy we might have had has turned into action.”

In the struggle for control of the U.S. Senate, the reaction against reaction has allowed Sen. Kay Hagan, so far at least, to defy the punditocracy. Once seen as one of this year’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Hagan has been maintaining a small but steady lead over state House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Tillis’ problem is the sharp turn right in the governance of one of the South’s traditionally moderate states that he helped engineer along with Gov. Pat McCrory. The governor doesn’t face the voters this year, so it’s Tillis who is reaping the whirlwind — particularly in a state that has been a pioneer in using good schools and world-class universities to build its economy.

“The edge that Kay Hagan has in this race, I believe, is attributable to the direction the state has taken and Thom Tillis’ role in that,” said Rep. David Price (D-NC), whose district includes the Research Triangle area that typifies North Carolina’s road to growth. “There are many things to be outraged about, but the most powerful is what the Republicans have done to public education, and to our teachers.”

Rarely has a debate offered a better look at how two candidates view the political landscape than the encounter Tuesday night between Tillis and Hagan at the state’s public television studios.

Tillis had one person on his mind. No matter what question host George Stephanopoulos asked, Tillis found a way to mention that Hagan had voted “96 percent” of the time with President Obama. He made 10 references to that number, and in case anybody missed it, mentioned it twice more at a news conference after the debate. Tillis is betting his campaign on disaffection with the president.

For her part, Hagan pointed out that while Obama is not on the ballot, Tillis is. Her calling card was Tillis’ “extremism.” She stayed on him for having “gutted education” and at times forced the Speaker on the defensive. She also criticized Tillis for blocking the Medicaid expansion and for opposing, among other measures, the minimum wage, new equal pay laws, and student loan refinancing, even as he had favored “tax cuts for the wealthy.”

Yet there is no way Hagan will let Tillis tag her as a “liberal.” In the battle of statistics, she loves nothing better than to cite National Journal’s 2013 Senate ratings that position her “smack dab in the middle, just like North Carolina,” a phrase she used to open an interview on Wednesday. Indeed, the magazine’s numbers had her at 49.3 percent liberal, 50.7 percent conservative.

Tillis’ record and Hagan’s own have allowed her to make the argument that Democrats would like to press nationwide: that today’s Republican Party is far to the right of the country in its attitudes toward government’s role, even on basic matters such as education.

And the very effort to make it harder for people to vote signals the importance of the franchise in a way that no amount of direct mail could. The Rev. William Barber II, whose “Moral Mondays” movement has mobilized opposition to the parade of right-wing policies out of Raleigh, said in an interview that voters in the state are ready to rise up against an approach designed to “make sure that it’s easier to get a gun than to vote.”

Should they do so, you wonder if Republicans will get the message: that even voters disappointed with President Obama are not ready to embrace a radical conservatism as the alternative.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.

Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr

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