Is the needle moving in the right direction for Thom Tillis? A recent CNN poll has Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan up by only 3 points. Amongst likely voters, Hagan and Tillis have favorable ratings that are underwater. Hagan registers at a 46/47 favorable to unfavorable, while Tillis is at 47/40. Not the best, but certainly an improvement from a poll of registered unaffiliated voters conducted by the right-leaning Civitas Institute, which has Tillis at 17/43 favorable to unfavorable; 24 percent didn’t know who Thom Tillis was when asked.
Obama’s approval rating is at 38 percent, but 25 percent of North Carolina likely voters might change their minds before Election Day. As I’ve said previously, there’s wiggle room for Tillis.
Tillis, Hagan’s Republican opponent, has been unable to make significant headway due to the state legislature being in session over the summer; Tillis serves as North Carolina’s House Speaker. The first debate was lackluster at best, with Tillis positioning himself nicely as the anti-Obama candidate. But as conservatives learned in 2012, that’s not enough.
Tillis is tapping into the fledgling neo-populist wave (that will probably mature by 2016) by discussing his working-class upbringing; he mentioned it in last week’s Republican Address. He lived in a trailer park with his parents and five siblings; worked various minimum wage jobs; and didn’t get his college degree until he was 36. He eventually became a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and an executive at IBM. Economic struggle, perseverance, hard work, and success in the end; these are the things voters are becoming more attuned as they listen to candidates from both parties make their case.
This narrative of overcoming struggle and hardship is one of the reasons why South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem, who dropped out of college to manage the family farm upon the death of her father, was able to defeat Democratic incumbent Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin in 2010.
It’s this formula that could help Republicans make headway with women voters. While men are set in their ways–and now reliably Republican–women are willing to listen to both sides. If Tillis overcame financial difficulties, what policies from Republicans can help them? This could be a better way to conduct outreach than showing women voters why Republicans aren’t “anti-woman.”
At the same time, Tillis has been hammered on education. National Democrats and the Hagan campaign have attacked him incessantly on a $500 million cut to education, which left-leaning Politifact labeled as a “half-truth.”
The Washington Post looked at the numbers (via WaPo):
As we have said before, the jet and yacht claim is taken out of context. A major tax law negotiated under Tillis’s watch in 2013 eliminated a number of loopholes to help finance a tax cut, including a $20,000 cap on deducting property taxes and home mortgage interest that was aimed at the owners of large homes and estates. But lawmakers,
under pressure from the state’s boat building industry, did not eliminate a $1,500 cap on the sales tax for boats and planes.
In other words, Tillis did not give a special tax break to jets and yachts at the expense of school children; it was already in the tax code.
As for the $500 million figure, close observers will note that every single ad attributes this figure to the same source —
an editorial in Charlotte Observer that ran in 2013. “The Senate and House budget plan … cuts education spending by almost $500 million in the next two years, including a decrease in net spending for K-12 public schools,” the editorial said.
That’s right, this is a two-year number — and the second year is adjusted as circumstances warrant. Moreover, the $500 million figure is comparing the figures over two years against a “continuation budget” — what would be needed to maintain the same level of spending based on inflation, population growth and other factors. In Washington parlance, this is known as “the baseline.” It’s an important concept, but it is simply an illustration; it not does not reflect actual budget numbers.
[V]oters should be wary of raw numbers without proper context. This is not a real budget number but one based off a baseline. The ads all feature children, but this is a number for all education funding, not just K-12. Moreover, funding was increased — and teachers got a pay raise — in this summer’s budget, but the ads still cite the old 2013 baseline figure.
Additionally, there’s the development that Sen. Hagan’s husband may have profited from Obama’s stimulus program (via Politico):
JDC Manufacturing, a company co-owned by the Democratic senator’s husband, Chip, received nearly $390,000 in federal grants for energy projects and tax credits created by the 2009 stimulus law, according to public records and information provided by the company.
Financial disclosure statements show that the Hagans’ income from JDC Manufacturing increased from less than $201 in 2008 to nearly $134,000 in 2013. Company representatives said higher rental income account for the uptick, not the stimulus-funded projects that were completed during that span.
In statement to POLITICO, the Hagan campaign said the senator did not help her husband win the federal funding and disputed any suggestion they have profited off the law.
Once she learned of her husband’s dealings, Hagan never involved herself in his efforts to obtain the stimulus grants, her campaign said. She consulted with veteran Democratic attorney Marc Elias over the matter, according to spokeswoman Sadie Weiner.
“Kay is not involved in her husband’s business and had no part in helping JDC apply for or receive these grants,” Weiner said. “Her only involvement was when she made sure that a respected ethics attorney was consulted to ensure that it was appropriate, and the attorney found that it was.”
Senate rules give senators significant leeway in voting for legislation that could benefit them financially, as long as a wider class of investors is affected. They must recuse themselves only if a narrowly targeted bill would specifically benefit a limited class of people that includes the senators themselves. Spouses of senators may enter into contracts with the government so long as improper influence is not exerted by the lawmaker.
Legal experts said there’s nothing improper about Hagan’s actions if the senator, as she says, removed herself from the process of securing the stimulus money. But some argue it spotlights a serious weakness in the ethics rules.
Politico added that Tillis also voted for a federal renewable energy tax credit program, which benefitted a bank where he had financial interests. Of course, Sen. Hagan’s ethical questions are greater given that she voted for this massive spending bill–all $767 billion dollars–at the federal level. Moreover, to say her family did not profit from this cash injection looks frivolous, which could hurt her authenticity amongst North Carolina voters in the last days of the 2014 cycle.
Then, there’s ISIS. With ISIS becoming more of a concern, Democrats are right to be concerned that the issue could hurt them by Election Day; we could be seeing the return of the “security moms.” Tillis recently released an ad hitting Hagan for reportedly skipping out on classified ISIS hearings to attend a fundraiser in New York City last February.
The past few days have been better for Tillis. The “sins of Raleigh” strategy Hagan has employed could implode, Sen. Lindsay Graham is coming to campaign for him, and some ad money from Karl Rove’s Crossroads group is coming into North Carolina.
One thing both sides need to watch out for is Libertarian Sean Haugh, who is drawing an impressive 7 percent of the vote. He could be a spoiler. As Noah Rothman wrote for Hot Air, it would be impressive if he does garner that much of the vote, but noted that third-party supporters often pull the lever for the challenger–even if they don’t like him/her–since they can’t stand the incumbent:
Libertarian Senate candidate Sean Haugh. In that survey, 7 percent of likely voters said they would back Haugh, a condition which could make him the “spoiler” of this race. More worrying for Republicans is the fact that Haugh draws more votes among self-identified Democrats (4 percent) than Republicans (3 percent), suggesting that Haugh’s support would not collapse even if a few GOP voters “come home” in November.
It would, however, be surprising to see a major third party candidate draw 7 percent in November. In statewide races with an incumbent on the ballot, respondents are often more inclined to tell pollsters that they support a third party candidate than they are to vote for them. A famous recent example of this phenomenon took place in New Jersey in 2009 where independent gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett routinely polled in the double digits before the election. Real Clear Politics showed Daggett had an average of 10.4 percent support across the many polls of that race. At the ballot box, however, he received just 5.8 percent of the vote.
The majority of Daggett’s support went to Chris Christie for one simple reason: As a general rule, voters who are keen to back a third party candidate dislike the challenger but they despise the incumbent. When the curtain closes, they reluctantly pull the lever for the candidate that has the realistic chance of unseating the unpopular incumbent.
Also, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is hearing arguments over the state’s new voter laws, which some say suppresses the vote. Could this be something that motivates the liberal base come November? It remains to be seen; it does seem like lofty speculation for those who believe that it will drive Democratic turnout.
Though the needle has barely moved, it seems to be moving in Tillis' direction–one point at a time.
Editor's Note: When this post was originally published, it named North Carolina's Libertarian candidate as Brian Haugh; that’s incorrect. It’s Sean Haugh. We have updated the post to reflect the changes and apologize for the error.