How Kay Hagan Stayed Afloat
Democrats in the most competitive Senate races in the country are worse off now than they were this summer. But there’s one notable exception: North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan.
Despite being one of the most at-risk Democrats running in a state where President Barack Obama is unpopular, polls show Hagan has maintained a small-to-moderate lead — 4.2 points in the latest RealClearPolitics average — in her race against Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Hagan and supporting groups have used a sizable cash advantage to overwhelm Tillis on the airwaves, homing in on unpopular laws from the state legislature to paint the Republican as out of touch. That air assault, combined with Tillis’ lackluster fundraising, has enabled Hagan to avoid the slide her fellow vulnerable incumbents have suffered.
The race has seen more outside spending than any other contest in the country, and Democrats’ big bets on Hagan are paying off — even as the party’s incumbents and challengers lose ground in other states.
According to sources tracking the air war, the pro-Democratic Senate Majority PAC plans to spend about $14 million on ads on behalf of Hagan through Election Day. EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood have each committed $3 million on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is putting in an additional $9.6 million on ads, and Hagan’s campaign alone plans to spend at least $11.2 million on the airwaves, with the majority of ads focused on cuts to public education during Tillis’ tenure as speaker.
“I think the No. 1, 2 and 3 things she has done right is raising money,” said Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist in the state who has advised Senate candidates like Erskine Bowles in the past. “She’s got a huge fundraising edge, and she used the money well early on to paint Tillis as anti-education. She put him into a corner that he’s had a hard time crawling out of.”
The candidates have yet to report their latest fundraising totals, but Hagan entered July with the widest cash-on-hand advantage of any other vulnerable Democratic senator and their GOP challengers, based on second-quarter fundraising reports.
The race is far from over, but Hagan’s slight edge is an unexpected bright spot for Democrats, whose chances of keeping the Senate are 50-50 at best.
Tillis’ allies are responding to the money pouring in from the left, with both the American Crossroads super PAC and the Crossroads GPS nonprofit together spending about $11 million overall on the race through the election, North Carolina-based group Carolina Rising spending $4.7 million, the National Republican Senatorial Committee putting in $3.4 million, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce jumping in with ads featuring NASCAR legend Richard Petty.
Between past spending and existing reservations, Tillis’ campaign has laid out a total $5.7 million on television ads, according to sources tracking the air war, with plans to add $1 million more. Americans for Prosperity spent about $9 million on early attack ads against Hagan and has since directed its money toward the ground game.
But even Republicans concede that Hagan has run a smart campaign that has made it hard for Tillis — who was touted as a top recruit — to break through, especially as Democrats outgun Republicans on the airwaves in recent weeks.
An advantage on television and in digital advertising has allowed Hagan to localize the race by focusing on education. Tillis, on the other hand, has struggled to get as much traction on his message tying Hagan to Obama and national Democrats unpopular in the state.
“It’s obviously easier to define the narrative when you have a lot more money,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP strategist and former NRSC staffer.
Walsh and other Republicans also insist that the closeness of the race — and the difficulty Tillis has had in breaking away — has more to do with the changing demographics in North Carolina that have made the state more purple than red; Hagan is often grouped with the other three Democratic incumbents facing tough reelection fights in states won by Mitt Romney in 2012: Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor and Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu.
“Tillis was never going to win this thing until the very last day of the very last month,” said Dallas Woodhouse, president of Carolina Rising, which is spending big to boost Tillis. “It’s just a false narrative to include North Carolina as a red state.”
“Hagan has a tremendous amount of money,” Woodhouse added. “She’s managed to get to Oct. 1 without talking about anything she’s done. I question whether she can do that for five more weeks.”
But Democrats credit how Hagan’s dealt with an unpopular president, pointing to when the senator greeted Obama at the Charlotte airport in August before a speech only to criticize him later that day on his handling of the Veterans Affairs scandal.
“They’ve done a good job of walking the balance — not making it look like she’s running away from the president but distancing herself from him on issues,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist who worked for Elaine Marshall’s Senate campaign in 2010.
Mills added that Tillis’ ties to the Legislature have posed more of a problem and kept his campaign from focusing in on one message. “They’re throwing something different out there every week to see what sticks. … He should be running on his record of being speaker. But if your biggest asset is your biggest liability, then what have you got to run on?”
Privately, many Republicans are also wondering if Hagan would still have been in a strong position if Tillis had resigned as speaker. They blame Tillis’ “lost summer” — which resulted from a summer session of the Legislature, supposed to last only a few weeks, dragging on for three months — with keeping the Republican from fundraising, campaigning and distancing himself from some unpopular conservative legislative policies, including slashing jobless benefits, new voting laws and opposing Medicaid expansion.
Looking forward, Republicans believe that the Tillis campaign’s recent focus on foreign policy, combined with outside groups airing more positive and contrast ads to boost the Republican’s image among voters could reverse the momentum. Recent spots have touted Tillis’ efforts to get a bill requiring state-regulated insurance companies to cover autism therapy through the state House. With the airwaves saturated with attack ads, GOP groups are hoping the new ads will stand out.
“North Carolina really has a history of having Senate races breaking late,” said Daniel Keylin, spokesman for Tillis’ campaign. “Foreign policy has become a key issue. On [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], Hagan skipped a committee hearing, and she still hasn’t said why she wasn’t there.”
Hagan’s seat could well decide the majority in the Senate, and national Republicans are taking notice. Tillis has been joined on the campaign trail by potential 2016 GOP contenders like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul to rally voters in all corners of the party after a divisive primary.
Democrats know they can’t pop the champagne yet. Haganstill has to navigate through two debates. Some Democratic sources also suggested that questions related to Tillis’ real estate holdings could become part of the messaging in the final weeks.
The campaign will also continue to focus on education and other state legislative issues, hoping to sway voters on the unpopularity of the Legislature in Raleigh rather than the president and Congress in Washington.
“One of the most important things you can do is meet the voters where they are,” said Ben Ray, spokesman for Forward NC, which is allied with Hagan’s campaign. “Our electorate is very much about education right now.”