RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lawmakers run from chairing committees to giving speeches to casting votes, raising campaign money all the while. It's what they do, whether serving on Capitol Hill or at the statehouse. No one has perfect attendance.
Yet in at least four competitive Senate races from Colorado and Iowa to Kentucky and North Carolina, the candidates are taking each other's attendance and criticizing absences from their jobs.
"It's really a tool of the silly season and not really an accurate representation of how somebody is informed," said Patrick Griffin, formerly a legislative affairs aide to President Bill Clinton who has worked in the U.S. Senate.
Nowhere is the strategy more pronounced than in North Carolina. Republican state House speaker Thom Tillis criticized Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan for acknowledging she couldn't attend a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing because of a campaign fundraiser. But even as he made the argument, Tillis knew he'd missed days at work in the statehouse to raise campaign money, too.
Tillis has turned missed meetings into an issue in his tight race against Hagan, both in a television ad and at their second debate this week. He's accusing the freshman senator of putting fund raising ahead of vigilance about threats posed by Islamic State forces and others.
"There is nothing more important than receiving briefings on our national security," Tillis said Wednesday. "Sen. Hagan has failed to do her job."
But since he announced his bid for the Senate, Tillis has at least twice been in Washington raising money while his colleagues in the North Carolina House debated or negotiated key legislation.
In July 2013, he was absent when the House gave final approval to North Carolina's most sweeping tax changes in a generation. Also on the calendar that day were significant bills related to immigration, coastal regulation and firearms. And while lawmakers were trying to negotiate an end to this year's General Assembly session last summer, Tillis was back in Washington for two more fundraisers.
"It is Speaker Tillis who acted inappropriately by skipping work and his duties as House speaker to raise funds for his Senate bid," Hagan campaign spokesman Chris Hayden said in a statement.
Similar dust-ups over attendance have come up in other close U.S. Senate races this year as Republicans try to gain the six seats required for the majority in the final two years of President Barack Obama's time in office.
In Iowa, Republican nominee Joni Ernst has faulted Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for missing hearings of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, while Democrats have pointed out that Ernst missed many floor votes as an Iowa state senator while running in the GOP primary.
In Colorado, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner released an ad this week criticizing Sen. Mark Udall for missing 64 percent of his Armed Services Committee hearings. At a debate Tuesday night, he challenged Udall to explain where he had been. Udall didn't answer, but he stressed he had never missed a committee vote.
And in Kentucky, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, have argued about the propriety of taking their government salaries while campaigning.
From party leaders to rank-and-file lawmakers, members of Congress have jam-packed schedules, often with multiple committee meetings taking place simultaneously. They routinely miss meetings and are filled in later by staffers with expertise on the given issue. Congress, in fact, was set up to give incumbents in office an advantage when they run for re-election. It's called, "recess," a vaguely-defined period during which they can go home and blend campaigning with official business — all while collecting their federal, annual salaries.
When asked if he was being disingenuous by criticizing Hagan given his own absences, Tillis suggested the activities in Raleigh weren't as significant.
"Quite honestly, if I had anything approaching the seriousness of the threat of ISIS, I would have cancelled anything I was doing," Tillis said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms. He later pointed out he was in Raleigh "the vast majority of the time" doing his job, such as negotiating the state budget.
Hagan said in a post-debate news conference Tuesday that she missed an Armed Services hearing when it was postponed after some Senate votes were scheduled.
Hagan's campaign confirmed Wednesday the hearing occurred Feb. 27. The Armed Services Committee held a closed hearing that afternoon on "current and future worldwide threats" to national security. Hagan's campaign scheduled a cocktail reception at a New York apartment that evening. Her campaign says Hagan has chaired three subcommittee hearings on the threat of "al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria," a previous name for the group that now calls itself the Islamic State.
Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker and Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh, Donna Cassata in Washington and Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.