RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's Senate race boils down to a battle of extremes. At least that's how Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis want voters to see it.
Running against President Barack Obama as much as he is against Hagan, Tillis calls the president's health care law an "unworkable mess," blasts American foreign policy as muddled and weak, and bemoans a $17 trillion-plus national debt.
"Kay Hagan's gone to Washington and voted with President Obama 96 percent of the time," Tillis, 54, says, urging voters to make Hagan answer for "the failures of this administration."
But Hagan, 61, has put Tillis on the defensive with a barrage of attacks on his record as House speaker in North Carolina's legislature. She casts the businessman-turned-politician as architect of an untenable rightward march on everything from education funding and labor laws to abortion, ballot access and Medicaid expansion.
"North Carolina needs a common-sense voice," Hagan said in the candidates' final debate, summing up her pitch that she's a moderate who better reflects the state than a Republican who "cut education" and "turned away health care for 500,000 North Carolinians" by not expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Hagan and Tillis reflect national trends of a midterm election cycle that will determine control of the Senate for the final two years of Obama's presidency. Republicans, who need six more seats for a Senate majority, want to "nationalize" elections by saddling Democrats with the president's 41 percent approval rating. Democrats want to make races more about personalities of candidates while framing issues in local context.
Yet the Hagan-Tillis matchup stands out because North Carolina's divided political makeup makes it difficult to know whose strategy will prevail.
The uncertainty has drawn massive infusions of outside money, driving the campaign's total cost above $60 million but failing to significantly alter months of polling that suggests a narrow Hagan lead but shows both nominees well below 50 percent. Libertarian Sean Haugh polls in single digits — potentially enough to deny Tillis victory if Haugh pulls conservative votes — with a small share remaining undecided. The top vote-getter on Nov. 4 wins even without securing a majority.
North Carolina was one of two states — Indiana is the other — that yielded different results in Obama's two presidential elections. Obama won here in 2008 by 14,000 votes out of 4.3 million total, just the second time since 1964 that Democrats claimed North Carolina's electoral votes. Hagan ran 3 percentage points ahead of Obama to defeat Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole. But just two years later, Republicans swept statewide offices and won majorities in both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since the 19th century, while Hagan's Senate colleague, Republican Richard Burr, quietly coasted to a second term.
In 2012, as Mitt Romney topped Obama in North Carolina, Republicans won nine out of 13 House districts. Yet they amassed those House victories using GOP-drawn lines that concentrated Democrats in urban districts: Democratic House candidates still won more than 2.2 million votes statewide, about 1.7 percentage points more than their GOP opponents.
Republicans bet that their recent successes reflect an earnest conservative shift, even as the state becomes younger, less white and more urban. "This is still a competitive state, but (the GOP is) ascendant," argued state Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope.
Tillis says he can energize conservatives and attract independents because Hagan misrepresented herself in 2008 when she criticized Dole for backing President George W. Bush in more than 90 percent of Senate votes. "Kay Hagan said herself that doesn't work for North Carolina," he said. "But look at her. It's been one broken promise after another."
He makes clear that he's accusing Hagan of hypocrisy, not calling for bipartisanship himself. Asked what Obama initiatives he could support, he blamed congressional dysfunction on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not advancing House Republican bills. And he's concentrating on shoring up conservative support, recently campaigning with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite who had endorsed one of Tillis' Republican primary rivals.
Hagan and Democrats bet that enough voters will see Tillis as the out-of-step partisan. She'll be especially dependent on winning a large margin among women, a gap she hopes to exploit by attacking Tillis for denying state money for Planned Parenthood and slowing spending increases for public schools.
Associated Press reporter Gary Robertson contributed to this report. Follow Barrow on Twitter https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP