- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan stepped up attacks Wednesday on Republican rival Thom Tillis’ stand on issues she believes most important to women, saying his policies as state House speaker hurt them in seeking health care and economic opportunities.

Locked in a tight re-election battle, Hagan told a group of women in Charlotte that she would “never back down when women and their families are counting on me.”

“I am standing up against extremists who are trying to politicized women’s health care,” said Hagan, who was introduced by Janet Colm with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina.

But Hagan’s message was tailored to women outside the room - voters who could give her the edge against Tillis in the closely watched race. The GOP has long listed North Carolina as a top target to help win back the U.S. Senate.

An Elon University Poll last month gave Hagan a 19 percentage-point advantage over Tillis among likely women voters. Among single women expected to vote, Hagan led 65 percent to 18 percent for Tillis.

Tillis has tried to bring more women over to his side in part by creating a “Women for Tillis” group, arguing President Barack Obama’s policies - supported by Hagan - have left more women without jobs and security, and weaving the role of women into his narrative.

Hagan said Tillis has a “dismal” record when it comes to women’s issues. Before the news conference, she released county-by-county statistics her campaign says show how GOP-backed policies in the General Assembly have hurt North Carolina women and families.

She again blamed Tillis for declining to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of people through Obama’s signature health care law. More than half of the new enrollees would be women, she said.

Hagan also said Tillis supported policies that limit access to birth control and hit him hard again on a Democratic bill that died in the state House last year that would have required employers to pay the same to employees of both genders with the same job for the same work.

Tillis has said existing nondiscrimination laws protecting women against pay inequity should be enforced. During a televised debate with Hagan last week, Tillis mentioned the hard work performed by his mother and grandmother. Tillis said his daughter, who will enter nursing next year, “better get paid the same amount as a man of the same skill, set or there should be consequences for that.”

But Tillis also said the U.S. economy doesn’t need more regulations to dampen business growth and job creation following a recession that he says has hurt women disproportionately.

Partisan legislation supported by Hagan “won’t solve the problem and would actually cost women jobs,” Tillis campaign spokeswoman Meghan Burris said Wednesday in a release in which she also criticized Hagan for “false attacks against Thom to distract from her own failed record.”

A Hagan ad run in the past week criticizes Tillis’ support of a provision in the final 2012-13 state budget that essentially prevented Planned Parenthood from receiving state funds to provide non-abortion services.

Tillis, who was endorsed by National Right-to-Life, has made no apologies for defunding Planned Parenthood. He also helped pass laws in 2011 and 2013 to add further restrictions to abortion and to tighten rules on abortion clinics.

An analysis of returned mail-in absentee ballots through Tuesday appears to favor Democrats. The number of registered Democrats that have returned their ballots is 57 percent higher compared to three weeks before the 2010 general election, said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor crunching the numbers.

Unaffiliated voters also are up 42 percent but Republicans are down 4 percent compared to 2010, Bitzer said.

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Robertson reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.

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