Game On: Hagan and Tillis Duke It Out In First Senate Debate

Matt Vespa

9/5/2014 8:50:00 AM - Matt Vespa

On Wednesday night, Sen. Kay Hagan and North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis duked it out in their first debate moderated by CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell. One thing was clear: both weren’t the best debaters. Throughout this campaign, Hagan has been trying to tie Tillis to the happenings in Raleigh, especially with the half-truth that the state legislature doled out $500 million in education cuts. Tillis has been attacking Hagan for being part of the Washington establishment, voting with Obama 95 percent of the time, and not spending enough time in North Carolina. In this fight for which political class is worst, it’s Raleigh vs. Washington D.C. And that’s the point. If you have watched every single political ad in the Tar Heel state, you probably could’ve missed this hour-long debate last night.

The first question dealt with the growing threat of ISIS and whether the U.S. should conduct airstrikes to protect our national security interests.

Tillis said that we’re seeing a backward trend on this front–and that Kay Hagan allowed this to happen. He added that the world is less safe than it was when Kay was elected in 2008. Tillis stressed the need to use all available means to us to protect Americans.

Hagan said she wants the president to have a course of action; she wants to see the plan. She also said it was a mistake that we didn’t arm the moderate Syrian rebels and called ISIS the most serious threat we face as a nation since 9/11. Hagan also declared that the beheadings of American journalists were a direct attack on the United States.

On healthcare, Hagan hit Tillis, saying he would return to the broken health care system of the past where seniors would pay more, women would pay more, insurance plans would be cancelled due to pre-existing conditions, and the return of costlier prescriptions.

Mediscare tactics were deployed when Hagan said Tillis would turn Medicare into a voucher program. All of this was used to paint Tillis as out-of-touch with the needs of North Carolina residents.

Tillis struck back, citing the 24 instances where Hagan said if you like your doctor or health care plan, you could keep it; the 475,000 cancellation notices issued throughout the state; and the fact that Obamacare is only solvent if you cut $700 billion from Medicare. The last claim is a bit shaky, but that’s for a different time.

Hagan mentioned Tillis' refusal to expand Medicaid, which prevented 500,000 North Carolina residents from getting access to healthcare. Tillis didn’t respond to these allegations; he pivoted towards the fact that many Americans liked their healthcare before Kay Hagan and Washington deemed it insignificant with their support for Obamacare.

Education was one of the main focal points in this debate. Even when other issues were being debated Sen. Hagan brought us back to the Tillis-sponsored cuts in education, the exodus of teachers, and the phantom pay raise the state legislature passed. Tillis touted the 7 percent pay increase, which he says is the largest in 20 years. Hagan rebuked that point, saying it’s really a 0.3 percent pay raise if you’re a senior teacher. She continued saying how education is a bipartisan issue in the state, we get nowhere by gutting it, and how Tillis’ decision to make those cuts to subsidize a tax cut for the wealthy shows where his priorities rest.

Tillis stressed the freedom to let the teacher teach instead of being stifled by bureaucrats at the Department of Education, allow them to innovate in the classroom, paying them well, and quit forcing tests and reports that hamstring progress.

He also hit Hagan for her 10-year tenure in the state legislature, saying she let the same tax breaks stay on the books. He added that Hagan supported a temporary sales tax increase when times got rough.

With immigration being a hot issue, Hagan touted her bipartisan bill in the Senate that passed last year. She listed off the details; it doubled the amount of border agents, provided a 700-mile long fence, and electronic surveillance to track people with visas. She’s against the president’s use of executive action and noted that while Tillis is complaining; he has no plan.

The "War on Women" raised its ugly head with the question about Hobby Lobby and contraception coverage. Tillis aptly noted that the case was about religious freedom, not access to contraception. Hagan, of course, disagreed; saying that Tillis has an abysmal record with women, he doesn’t understand women, and is out-of-touch with them. She announced her support for equal pay, and hit Tillis for killing an equal pay bill in the state legislature. Again, focusing on the sins of Raleigh. Also, she would never back down when women’s interests are on the line.

Tillis actually thinks we should make contraceptives more widely available, especially over the counter oral contraceptives that he thinks should not require a prescription. In all, Tillis backs the American Medical Association on this front. Hagan struck back that North Carolina defunded Planned Parenthood; a point Noah Rothman noted might not be viewed as a terrible decision with voters.

As for Veterans Affairs, Tillis touched on Hagan’s failed promise to reform the institution when she ran in 2008. He called for accountability and strong leadership. Hagan brought up her family’s roots in the military; her father-in-law was a Major General in the Marine Corps, she has two nephews in the military, her father and brother were in the Navy, and her husband is a Vietnam War veteran. Hagan said she took action when news of the incompetence at the VA was becoming known.

While education is an issue national Democrats are using against Tillis, his waffled answer on the minimum wage could cause trouble. O’Donnell asked him if $7.25 was enough. Tillis said that it’s better left to the states, but then attacked Hagan over Obamacare and new EPA regulations.

The minimum wage is one of the few issues, if any, that Democrats can possibly make inroads with white, working class men, who support minimum wage increases.

In some races, male voters will decide the outcome. In Kentucky, they’re the reason why Mitch McConnell is leading Grimes.

In 2006, then-Republican Sen. Jim Talent was in a tight race with Claire McCaskill. That year, Proposition B, a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, was on the ballot. It easily passed with 76 percent of the vote, but Talent opposed it. He subsequently lost re-election by 2-points. Some blame his opposition for his loss. Tillis’ state-based solution answer might not satisfy voters who are hurting economically this year.

Additionally, it was an issue that galvanized voters in 2006. Could there be a replay here?

It’s just after Labor Day and the 2014 election cycle is winding down, although it’s more like a sprint to the finish line. As Nate Cohn noted in the New York Times, races will be won or lost based on who’s more unpopular–Obama or the GOP? That trend really isn’t known at present. But, as Guy wrote yesterday, a new Politico/GWU showed Republicans enjoyed a 16-point advantage in states with competitive senate races. And Obama was considered a drag on the party.

On spending, taxes, immigration, foreign policy, and taxes, the GOP hold healthy advantages, with the Politico/GWU Republican analysis indicating that “for voters worried about their pocketbook, their safety from foreign threats, or the sovereignty of their nation, the GOP is winning the battle of ideas.”

But, Democrats are more trusted in handling entitlements, like Medicare, and defending the middle class. So, we should not be surprised if Hagan becomes more aggressive in mobilizing the geriatric brigade. From the Democratic perspective [emphasis mine]:

[F]or Democrats to make any gains in November, they must increase their advantage among women. Democratic candidates can do this by emphasizing a broad range of women’s issues—including the economy, reproductive health care, and Social Security and Medicare—and weaving these issues into existing advantages among women on such key dimensions as “standing up for the middle class” (+14 Dem overall, +20 Dem among women) and “representing middle class values” (+12 Dem overall, +15 Dem among women).

While Election Day draws ever closer, the political landscape continues to shift, and so even at this late date, the outcomes of the elections are very much up for grabs. Despite disadvantages due to the sheer number of seats Democrats must defend in the Senate, Democrats still have the ammunition they need to stave off a united Republican Congress.

The next debate is on October 7.