By Colleen Jenkins
WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - After the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history, North Carolina voters were set on Tuesday to choose between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis in a match-up that will help decide majority control of the chamber.
More than $108 million has been spent on the contest, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. Yet the candidates remained nearly tied ahead of Election Day, with the RealClearPolitics poll average showing Hagan up by just 0.7 percentage point.
Hagan, 61, is seeking a second term in a polarized state that has leaned more heavily in favor of Republicans since she beat Elizabeth Dole for the seat in 2008.
Political analysts say Hagan has run a strong campaign, tying Tillis, speaker of the Republican-led North Carolina House, to unpopular legislative actions that she argues have hurt women and the middle class.
Tillis, 54, has fired back by linking Hagan to the policies of Democratic President Barack Obama, who has become increasingly unpopular in the Tar Heel state, which he won in the 2008 election but narrowly lost in 2012.
"I'm not going to vote for somebody whose record shows that they are voting with Obama most of the time," Republican voter Susan Wainscott, 65, said recently outside a Walmart store in Winston-Salem.
Unaffiliated voter Daniel Roberts, 24, cited Tillis' record in the legislature as the reason Hagan would get his vote.
"I really don't like what he's done while there," Roberts said.
The state saw a far higher turnout in early voting than during the 2010 midterm election, possibly fueled by the race's competitive nature and anger toward the state government, political scientist Michael Bitzer said on his "Old North State Politics" blog.
Registered Democrats cast 48.5 percent of in-person early ballots, compared to about 31 percent by Republicans and about 20 percent by unaffiliated and Libertarian voters.
The biggest uptick came from unaffiliated voters, who cast 192,000 more early in-person ballots than in 2010. Democrats cast 106,000 additional early ballots and Republicans 16,000 more than during the midterms four years ago, Bitzer said.
Tillis sounded a confident note on the eve of the election at his campaign office in Cornelius, where chairs at its phone bank were decorated in “Defeat Hagan” and “Win the Day” stickers and signs.
"We're going to get this," Tillis told the volunteers on Monday.
(Additional reporting by Emily Harris in Cornelius, North Carolina)