- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Promises, promises.

They’ve been the touchstone for Thom Tillis’ North Carolina U.S. Senate campaign since he officially filed as a candidate eight months ago.

In debates and on the stump, Tillis contrasts legislative and fiscal policies he says he promised to complete when Republicans took over the legislature following the 2010 elections with what he considers Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s empty resume since being elected in 2008.

“Fulfilling your promises is the easiest way to get elected, and breaking your promises is the easiest way to get fired,” Tillis said while visiting state Republican Party headquarters in Raleigh this month to rally GOP volunteers making calls and ringing doorbells for him. “And that’s why Sen. Hagan is going to get fired.”

According to Tillis, Hagan’s close voting ties to President Barack Obama and support of his signature health care plan with vows of people keeping their doctors and insurance plans have damaged her credibility. Tillis says his effectiveness in Raleigh is proof he can do the same on Capitol Hill. His supporters seem to believe so.

“He’ll be a big plus to the country,” said retired veteran and registered Republican Bob Forsythe, 70, after attending a recent event in Goldsboro featuring Tillis and Arizona Sen. John McCain. “I think he’s put (the state) in the right direction.”

But the political ripples of legislation the General Assembly has passed that reduced unemployment benefits, initiated new voting and abortion restrictions and rejected Medicaid expansion also awakened Democrats into action. And allegations from Hagan and her allies - amped with millions of dollars for television ads - that Tillis harmed public education wasn’t easily shaken entering the fall.

“I’m not that politically savvy, but you know the people you tend to watch who say things and do things about what you’re concerned about,” said registered Democrat Janice Kozur, 69, of Raeford, who backs Hagan. “And the big thing is education.”

The recent worries over the Islamic State and Ebola, however, have allowed Tillis to shift the discussion away from public schools to national matters. They fit well into his strategy to nationalize the election as a referendum on Obama.

“If I’m a Republican candidate, I would much rather be talking about national security than education,” said David Holian, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The race has become extremely tight and probably will come down to remaining undecided voters. Tillis’ time leading the legislature, which has low poll approval numbers, remains a double-edged sword for Tillis. “The drag on Hagan is Obama, and the drag on Tillis is the Legislature,” Holian said.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Tillis said the path to persuading the undecideds to vote for him runs along kitchen-table issues and increased worries of average citizens that have grown under Democratic leadership.

Tillis said he must “continue to focus on jobs and the economy - it’s still the most important thing on people’s minds - and their failures on safety and security. That’s what insures that we win,” he said.

Tillis also needs to energize disaffected unaffiliated and Republican voters who saw him as not conservative enough during the crowded May primary. More than one-quarter of primary voters chose Greg Brannon, who was preferred by tea party adherents and the GOP’s libertarian wing. They may be willing to stay home on Election Day or choose Libertarian Party candidate Sean Haugh.

“I think Tillis really failed in the primary, he ignored the base and the base is ignoring him,” said Republican Mark Cares, 44, of Chatham County, who backed Brannon. “I’ll vote for the guy but I’m not going to give him a penny. I may put up my (Tillis) sign, I may not.”

Tillis and his campaign have downplayed Haugh’s spoiler potential. And with an array of national Republican political stars from McCain to libertarian favorite Sen. Rand Paul backing his candidacy in person, Tillis is covering the wide GOP spectrum while vowing to pass legislation that congressional Republicans want but have been blocked by Senate Democrats if he’s elected and the Senate turns Republican.

“I will be obsessed with fulfilling the promise that these Republicans running across the country are making today,” Tillis said at the Raleigh rally.

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