Senate elections 101: North Carolina wary of Tillis's tea party revolution

As House speaker, Thom Tillis masterminded the conservative revolution in North Carolina. Will voters now decide the tea party agenda is steeped too strong? Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan hopes so.

David Rolfe/Winston-Salem Journal/AP
Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis, center, makes a campaign appearance at Republican headquarters in Winston-Salem, N.C., Friday.

The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

Not too long ago, North Carolina was a peculiar Southern gem: a little bit Northern, but still very Southern, growing increasingly hip and liberal, but staying a “Bible belt” rock.

But after Barack Obama won the state in 2008, North Carolina morphed into something seemingly new. Tea party-inspired legislators cut tax rates on individuals and corporations and passed a quiver-load of socially conservative laws ranging from a ban on sharia (Islamic law) in courts to allowing guns in city parks.

It’s the real-life expression of that agenda in a single state – some have called the new North Carolina a “GOP wonderland” – that gives added heft to the crucial Senate contest between freshman Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat who won on Mr. Obama's ballot-box coattails in 2008, and Thom Tillis (R), the House speaker who masterminded the Tar Heel State’s conservative revolution.

Thanks to the simplified tax code, North Carolinians got to keep $313 million extra in their pockets last year. The state jumped in a single year from having one of the worst business tax climates to the 16th best in America, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

Yet such taxpayer givebacks, critics say, have taken a toll on the state’s proud but struggling education system. Although it’s true that the House under Speaker Tillis has increased education spending year over year, the spending hasn’t kept up with inflation. That means the state spends about a quarter as much on textbooks today as it did four years ago.

Given such new realities, the election, from Senator Hagan’s perspective, is a test of whether the tea party agenda is steeped too strong even for states in the conservative South. "One hundred percent of the time, Speaker Tillis's policies have hurt North Carolina," Hagan said at an Oct. 7 debate. "He's gutted education, killed the equal pay bill, no Medicaid expansion."

For his part, Tillis believes he has Hagan’s Achilles’ heel: Obama, whom he mentions in almost every sentence. And Democratic turnout is likely to be a weak spot for Hagan, given the sour mood of voters in this midterm election.

“This is not 2008. This is not even 2012. This is a smaller, whiter, older, richer electorate,” Duke political scientist Mac McCorkle told the “PBS NewsHour” this week. “It’s not an Obama electorate.”

Underscoring the ideological stakes is a phenomenon seen in the other competitive Senate races: unprecedented amounts of outside money being poured in from both liberal and conservative interests vying to turn the tide, if only by a statistical inch. The candidates and their proxy groups have spent more than $70 million on the North Carolina Senate race – and the contest is poised to become the most expensive congressional race in US history.

The upshot: The latest polling averages show the Democrat incumbent's lead down to a mere 1.3 percentage points. “Hagan's lead continues to trickle away,” according to RealClearPolitics. “But with only [days] to go until Election Day, she may well be able to run out the clock.”

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