RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis is trying to change the subject in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, shifting from her critique of his public school funding to her record on national security, as the election enters its final month.
Tillis has spent the run-up to the candidates' second debate Tuesday night slamming Hagan's record on national security and her attendance at Senate Armed Services Committee meetings as the threat from the Islamic State group neared. The Republican challenger says Hagan failed to demand a stronger foreign policy and urge President Barack Obama to tackle the approaching problem.
"We need a president that needs to have a plan, not call the greatest threat to terror the 'jayvee team' just a few months ago," Tillis said during a Raleigh campaign appearance last week with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. "And we've got a senator who sits on important committees that should be developing strategies, and she has no plan."
Hagan has defended her record, including what she calls consistent support for arming and training moderate Syrian rebels battling not only the extremists but the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Her campaign cites meetings Hagan chaired examining the possible threat of the Islamic State. She voted last month to arm and train the Syrian rebels. And she questioned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Sept. 16 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the threat of the Islamic State group. It was the lone public session the full panel held after the August break.
Senators from both parties said little about the Islamic State until the recent beheadings of westerners.
Tillis' new focus on foreign policy fits his strategy of linking Hagan to Obama, who acknowledged recently that U.S. intelligence agencies underestimated the Islamic State threat.
In addition to appearing with Paul, Tillis campaigned by the side of hawkish South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Now he's run two television ads on national security — one a testimonial from a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel whose son is serving in Afghanistan.
"It makes me so mad to see how the president's weakness has allowed the Islamic State to grow. And Sen. Hagan just goes right along with him," Nancy Anderson says to the camera. "We can't let our kids die in vain. We have to change our senator."
Tillis said Hagan has missed too many full committee meetings this year, but Hagan's campaign says the subcommittee she leads held three hearings on counterterrorism since last year that addressed the threat of "al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria," a former name for the Islamic State.
"It's critical that the people of Syria have an alternative other than ISIS or other radical terrorist groups like it, or the Assad regime. And that's why I have been pushing the administration to empower and arm the moderate Syrian opposition," Hagan told Hagel and Dempsey before the Armed Services Committee.
Hagan voted last month in favor of arming and training the Syrian rebels and has called Tillis "spineless" for failing to offer his own strategy. Tillis said he's worried the weapons could get in the wrong hands but said he would have voted yes too, mainly because the bill also allowed the U.S. government to keep operating.
Tillis' shift comes in a close Senate race among several that Republicans want to win to take the Senate majority. More than $53 million has been spent in the contest, making it the most expensive in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Polls show Hagan, seeking a second term, slightly ahead.
Tillis has been unable to shake accusations from Hagan and her Democratic allies that he's damaged public education. Hagan is running a new ad repeating accusations Tillis passed legislation that cut nearly $500 million from education. Republicans say the cut didn't occur, and Tillis takes credit for an average 7 percent teacher pay raise passed by the General Assembly.
The schools "are part of his record, it's legitimate to bring up and they've hammered him with it," said longtime state Republican consultant, Carter Wrenn.
Tillis' camp is banking the shift will appeal to the electorate. About 8 in 10 likely voters say terrorism is a key issue for them, and Republicans have a 16-percentage point advantage over Democrats when asked which party can be more trusted to protect the country, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this story.