CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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 bringing out the big guns to rally the Democratic base to the polls, part of her get-out-the-vote effort that is rapidly becoming a necessity with one week until Election Day.
Hagan is zeroing in on turning out women and blacks as recent polls indicate her small lead has evaporated. Her team is emphasizing early voting at every campaign stop while tapping her party’s top names to help rally the party faithful.
A ground game edge for Hagan looked like icing on the cake a few weeks ago. But North Carolina Speaker Thom Tillis (R) has run a more disciplined campaign as of late, drilling Hagan on national security and capitalizing on some recent Hagan missteps while his allies have helped close what had been a big Democratic edge in TV advertising. Republicans believe he's erased whatever lead Hagan once held.
“I definitely sense a momentum shift,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) told The Hill after introducing Tillis at Wingate University last week. “For a while there … this race just wasn't moving because of all these negative ads on both sides. But I really sense a difference in the last two weeks, a shift in our direction.”
“Tillis is finally hitting back,” said one Hagan ally. “It was always going to be close at the end. This race is like two pythons slowly trying to choke the life out of each other."
Now, Hagan is looking to goose Democratic turnout with a relentless focus on women’s issues, a minimum wage increase and education, reemphasizing longtime campaign themes.
On Saturday, the North Carolina senator and former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE (D) implored women and black voters to turn out during early voting, rallying more than 1,000 Democratic loyalists in Charlotte Convention Center hall plastered with “Vote Early” signs. The event kicked off with a Hagan field staffer begging for volunteers, and every speaker hit hard on early voting and volunteers.
“Elections come down often to who's got more money, who's peddling more fear and who turns out. And there is nothing more important for Kay than who turns out,” Clinton said in Charlotte on Thursday. The likely 2016 presidential candidate made a veiled reference to Tillis’s national security attacks before touting Hagan as a champion for voting rights, working class voters and women.
“We've got to turn this mother out,” Democratic House nominee Alma Adams said to cheers while introducing the pair.
And for Hagan, that means focusing on her base.
“I didn't raise my two daughters to think they were worth 82 cents on the dollar and I don't think Hillary Clinton did either,” she said in Charlotte before accusing Tillis of “cutting $500 million from our public education system to give a tax break to the wealthy” and hitting him on the minimum wage, college affordability and voter ID laws.
Hagan had held a small but sturdy lead in the polls for much of the summer and early fall, benefitting from a big spending advantage on the air and a relentless focus on education as Tillis struggled to find a resonant message.
But in recent weeks Tillis has shifted the conversation. Hagan admitted after an early October debate that she missed a committee hearing on ISIS to attend a fundraiser, giving him fodder to drill her on national security, and he’s also pushed her on Ebola. Hagan eventually said she supported a travel ban on the affected parts of Africa after initially voicing skepticism it would help things.
“That debate week she had a bad week, she had the worst week of the campaign,” said North Carolina-based Democratic strategist Thomas Mills.
Tillis called Hagan a “rubber stamp” for Obama and his foreign policy on Saturday, attacking her on ISIS and problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs in a speech at the Albemarle American Legion Hall.
“Kay Hagan has voted with President Obama 96 percent of the time,” he said in a speech punctuated by gunfire from a turkey shoot going on outside. “She hasn’t acted like a senator who represents one of the states with one of the largest military presences. More men and women in uniform than virtually every state in the nation, and she’s silent while the president continues to fail on foreign policy.”
Recent polls indicate that Tillis has erased most if not all of Hagan’s lead. Democrats believe they still have a slight lead in the race, while GOP numbers have the race tied.
Tillis admitted his campaign got a late start but says he now has the momentum.
“I was presiding over the legislature until the second week of August, we were not really able to go out and start getting the message out until mid-August,” Tillis told The Hill. “The ISIS threat, the mishandling of the Ebola threat, the blanket amnesty have really emerged as top-of-mind issues, and at the end of the day people are still really worried about the economy.”
Democrats have long said that their ground game advantage could put them over the top in close races across the country, giving them a one to two point boost in most races. Some of their largest investments have been in North Carolina. The Senate race there is on pace to be the most expensive in the country: it could see $100 million total spent.
“This election is going to hinge on who turns out to vote. … We are executing on the strategy that we set forward within the last two years,” Hagan told The Hill.
There’s evidence Democrats’ field investments are paying dividends, though it’s unclear whether they will be enough.
North Carolina Democrats are clearly doing much better in early voting than they did in 2010, even with one less week of early voting, but just improving on that year won’t be enough. Democrats have a 17-point edge over Republicans in early voting numbers right now, up from a from a 10-point edge they had at this point four years ago, when Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes NC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.) sailed to reelection by a double-digit win.
This year, early voting is higher on both sides — but it’s also increasing Democrats’ raw vote advantage.
“Right now it looks as though the Democrats are doing fairly well considering the reduction of early-voting days. If these numbers continue on as they have been, Democrats should be happy,” said University of Florida Prof. Michael McDonald, an elections expert who’s been closely watching the early vote numbers. “But these numbers aren't so definitively lopsided that I'd say Hagan has this sewed up yet.”