- Associated Press - Monday, September 1, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina government has undergone a dramatic shift to the right. How voters feel about Republican control should shade Election Day results for the U.S. Senate and on down the ballot.

A state government dominated by Democrats for generations turned when the state House and Senate went Republican in 2010. Pat McCrory became the first GOP governor in two decades two years later.

Republicans have passed laws since 2013 reducing maximum unemployment benefits, spending tax dollars to send public school students to private schools, refusing Medicaid expansion and placing additional regulations on abortion. But lawmakers also say lowering tax rates and regulations and closing budget gaps helped accelerate the state’s economic recovery.

Here are five things to watch in North Carolina’s midterm elections:

WHO’S TO BLAME? The re-election of first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan will hinge in part on whether voters are angrier with actions in Raleigh since Republican challenger Thom Tillis was elected House speaker in 2011 than those on Capitol Hill since Hagan went to Washington in 2009. Key to Tillis’ chances are whether he can persuade registered independents in suburban Raleigh and Charlotte that public schools improved under his watch and that he can help clean up Washington’s fiscal mess. Hagan has her own worries because of her vote for President Barack Obama’s unpopular health care overhaul. She’s banking on a self-portrait as a middle-of-the-road presence in Washington in a closely divided state politically. Their first televised debate occurs Sept. 3.

MONEY TALKS: With the Hagan-Tillis race considered crucial in determining whether Republicans retake the Senate from Democrats, expect an overload of Senate television ads. Outside groups already have spent nearly $17 million in the campaign this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and expect tens of millions more. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee announced it would spend $9.1 million up to Election Day on ads attacking Tillis or praising Hagan. Tillis is likely to get more help from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and other groups bankrolled in part by conservative financiers Charles and David Koch. This third-party tidal wave should diminish the importance of the Hagan campaign’s large fundraising advantage over Tillis through June.

CONGRESS: Republicans drew redistricting boundaries in 2011 that helped turn a 7-6 seat advantage for Democrats into a 9-4 Republican margin. Now the GOP is poised to gain another seat as Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre decided not to seek re-election in the 7th District and Republican nominee David Rouzer is favored to win. Democrats are hopeful they can upset one incumbent and win a vacant seat. “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken won the Democratic nomination in the 2nd District currently represented by GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers. Former Baptist minister Mark Walker surprised many by winning the Republican runoff for the chance to succeed retiring 15-term Rep. Howard Coble in the 6th District. Democratic candidate Laura Fjeld has raised more money than Walker.

NEW RULES: The fall marks the first general election under rules approved in 2013 by the legislature that cut early voting time by a week, eliminated same-day registration during the early-voting period and prevented ballots from being counted if the voter went to the wrong precinct. Voters also are being told at the polls to prepare for a photo identification requirement in 2016. The provisions were carried out during the May primary, but a federal judge refused to block them from being used in November while lawsuits seeking to overturn them are pending. The state NAACP has been organizing voter registration efforts this year to counter what they argue are rules that will discourage black and Latino residents from voting. Republicans counter with data showing minority voter turnout was greater in the May primary compared to 2010.

OTHER RACES: All 170 seats at the legislature are up for re-election, but nearly half of the races have already have been decided because only one candidate is running in November. Republicans will be hard pressed to lose their strong majorities in either chamber. Voters also choose a chief justice of the state Supreme Court for the next eight years, while a whopping 19 candidates are seeking one seat on the intermediate Court of Appeals after a late retirement.

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