- Associated Press - Sunday, November 9, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Thom Tillis’ explanation for his U.S. Senate victory was pretty straightforward, pointing directly at President Barack Obama.

“It was a largely a referendum on President Obama’s track record over the last six years,” the Republican explained after he defeated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan last week by less than 2 percentage points out of 2.9 million votes cast.

The path to Tillis’ win was, in fact, a little more complicated.

According to Republicans who worked on his campaign or in his behalf, victory came because they got the right people in the right places to vote. And they caught breaks in current events that allowed Tillis to shift the focus away from the legislature’s record in Raleigh while he’s been House speaker.

Democrats backing Hagan said she ran a good race but was caught in a wave of anti-Obama sentiment. Others say Hagan should have embraced the president, rather than keep him at arms’ length. Some party members say the Democrats’ Election Day turnout was cannibalized by those who voted early.

“Democrats have got to a figure out a strategy on Election Day,” said longtime Democratic consultant Brad Crone. He said rural areas are of particular concern.

Instead of piling resources on fighting expensive battles in the largest urban, Democratic-leaning counties, Tillis’ campaign and Republican Party officials concentrated on GOP areas where their voters turned out in past elections but they felt more could vote. That’s the word from Paul Shumaker, Tillis’ chief campaign strategist.

Shumaker pointed to places such as Rowan, Cabarrus and Catawba counties. Tillis won by less than 50,000 votes overall.

Upgraded get-out-the-vote tools and computer modeling from the Republican National Committee assigned scores to registered voters on their likelihood to vote during a midterm, Shumaker said. Workers then focused their contact efforts on low-propensity voters.

After Tillis won his primary in May, Hagan used her campaign money advantage in the summer to attack Tillis on the Republican agenda he had helped to pass at the General Assembly.

By the fall, however, the nation had turned to the violence from the Islamic State militant group. When Obama announced expanded military action, Tillis and other Republicans criticized Hagan for missing Senate Armed Services Committee meetings and for failing to demand a more vigorous national security policy from Obama.

Later, Obama’s comments that his policies were “on the ballot - every single one of them” allowed Tillis to reinforce his accusation that Hagan voted with Obama too often.

When the “president injected himself in the election cycle, it had a profound impact,” Shumaker said.

Court rulings last month striking down North Carolina’s gay marriage ban also may have helped Tillis. He and state Senate leader Phil Berger appealed the decisions.

“A lot of people came out to vote because they are angry” about the rulings, said Tami Fitzgerald with the North Carolina Values Coalition.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP and a frequent critic of Tillis, suggested the Republican’s victory was helped by a law the legislature passed that eliminated same-day registration during early voting and barred counting ballots handed in at the incorrect precinct.

Without mentioning Hagan by name, Barber also criticized Democratic candidates who distanced themselves from Obama and his policies.

“If Democrats second-guess their accomplishments, second-guess their own commander-in-chief, how much more will the American public do so?” Barber asked.

Hagan said she backed the president on policies right for the state but “stood up to the president” at other times.

State Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller said the outcome may have been different with more money concentrated on county party activities to get out the vote.

Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner defended the re-election operation, pointing out it had more than 12,000 volunteers and with its allies knocked on nearly a half-million doors on Election Day.

“Democrats faced strong headwinds this year in races across the country but we are proud of the operation we built that gave North Carolina one of the smallest margins” in a Senate race, Weiner said in a statement.

Wake County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Blue III said that while someone could have promoted the president’s record to boost his North Carolina approval ratings - potentially helping Hagan - she had to live with the political hand dealt her and other Democrats nationwide.

Hagan ran as a moderate, just like she portrayed herself in 2008 when she upset Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, according to Blue.

“I don’t think there’s much more that the campaign could have done,” he said.

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