The North Carolina Senate race might end up being a rare bright spot for Democrats in November.
Sen. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganInfighting grips Nevada Democrats ahead of midterms Democrats, GOP face crowded primaries as party leaders lose control Biden's gun control push poses danger for midterms MORE (D-N.C.) is showing a surprising resiliency in the polls unmatched by her other red-state colleagues. And just over a month from Election Day, Republicans are increasingly worried that state House Speaker Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden MORE (R) might blow a prime pick-up opportunity.
“Every time we try to tie her to Obama and ObamaCare and the 24 times she said you could keep your doctor, none of that seems to be sticking very well,” North Carolina GOP Chairman Claude Pope admitted to The Hill. “We need to make the issue more about her and Obama and national policy issues and foreign policy issues.”
That playbook hasn’t worked so far for Republicans. Every nonpartisan public survey from the last month has had Hagan in the lead, and most public and private polling has found her up between three and five points in a Republican-leaning state that leans further to the GOP in midterm elections.
An anti-Obama, anti-Washington riptide has pulled down other Democrats in red states, but she’s been boosted by an ad spending disparity over the summer and fall that the GOP is just now narrowing.
While Tillis is finally on the air, he’s scrambling for a message that can resonate with voters.
Hagan and her allies have flayed Tillis on education for months, blasting him and the unpopular state legislature for what her campaign says were draconian cuts to the state education program.
Tillis fired back in a recent ad, pointing out he helped shepherd through an increase in teacher pay this summer. His allies are working to boost his image and change the topic on the air, but even they admit those attacks have done damage.
“If we continue to fight over education, we lose. But we're starting to move off of that,” said Dallas Woodhouse, the head of the pro-Tillis conservative group Carolina Rising. “We were losing the message war here in North Carolina. We're finally countering it.”
Tillis has bounced between different issues on the trail and hasn’t yet settled on a clear argument against Hagan. His campaign seemed to be gaining some traction on attacks early this week that a company owned by Hagan's husband benefitted from federal stimulus money, but on Thursday he turned to Ebola, calling for a ban on travel to the African countries, where there’s been an outbreak. He’s also been up with a new ad focused on foreign policy, tying Hagan to President Obama’s handling of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“The messaging in this race the last week has dramatically changed. Kay is now on the defensive on ISIS; she's on the defensive over the stimulus story,” said Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin. “Those issues have dominated the news cycle the last week, and they're not going away.”
Tillis supporters are glad he’s trying something new.
“The message hasn't been getting any traction. And if a message isn't getting traction, you have to try a different message,” said one Tillis ally.
“The Tillis campaign is desperately trying to change the subject because they realize how unpopular he is,” said Hagan spokesman Chris Hayden. “We've been talking about the same thing the entire campaign: his education cuts, minimum wage, defunding Planned Parenthood. That message is resonating with voters.”
National Republicans quietly admit they’re worried about the lack of a focus from the Tillis campaign in the final stretch. The clearest sign yet they’re trying to right the ship: The GOP is dispatching Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) spokesman Michael Steel to the state to help, where he’ll be officially based with the state party.
“Tillis was down because he wasn't running a great campaign initially. Now forces are concentrating to try to shore that up. … We need to continue to tie Hagan to Obama, we need to get more outside spending into the state,” said one national Republican strategist. “They need all the help they can get. It's smart to bring out the big guns in the last 30 days, and Michael Steel is a very talented guy who can help them focus on moving the ball forward.”
The North Carolina House Speaker has struggled with fundraising throughout his campaign, trying to balance campaign duties with his time heading the legislature.
Tillis had $1.5 million in the bank as of the beginning of July, about enough for 10 days of statewide TV ads in the expensive state. Hagan had $8.7 million after pulling in $3.6 million in the second fundraising quarter and has leveraged that cash into a huge advantage on the airwaves.
GOP outside groups are riding to the rescue, looking to bail him out with positive advertising while driving up Hagan’s negatives.
Carolina Rising has a spot out touting Tillis’s work for children with autism, while the Chamber of Commerce is up with an ad featuring NASCAR icon and Tar Heel native Richard Petty endorsing Tillis. The National Republican Senatorial Committee slams the North Carolina Democrat as ineffective in a new spot. American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS are planning to spend about $1 million a week from now until Election Day on the race — Crossroads GPS has a new contrast ad hitting her on ObamaCare — and Republicans have had a slight edge on the airwaves in recent weeks.
Planned Parenthood has been on air slamming Tillis on birth control, equal pay and abortion, helping to drive one of the largest gender gaps in the polls of any race in the country, while the National Education Association has been helping Hagan slam Tillis on education. The Senate Majority PAC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have also been on air.
Tillis’s allies think the increased spending could help close what they see as a surmountable gap. They think the race is beginning to move back their direction after a rough two months, saying Tillis has withstood the ad barrage.
But they admit he’s struggled to put a dent in Hagan in the way he’d hoped, blaming both the cash imbalance and his focus for his problems.
"Tillis needs a bit of a boost," said another national Republican strategist involved in the race. "He was off the campaign trail for a long time and was not able to raise enough to define himself."