North Carolina voters already have seen plenty of Sen. Kay Hagan and state House Speaker Thom Tillis on TV, mostly in grainy video clips or freeze-frame photos that make them look either angry or foolish, as a barrage of attack ads muddy the airways in the state’s hard-fought U.S. Senate contest.
They’ll finally get to put on their best faces and take some jabs at each other in person when they meet Wednesday in the first debate of the campaign.
The Democratic incumbent and her Republican challenger both have much at stake, needing a strong debate performance to break into the lead from what polls show is a neck-and-neck race heading into the fall campaign.
The hourlong debate will air statewide but also draw a national audience viewing it live online or on C-SPAN, as the contest is crucial to determining if Republicans can seize majority control of the U.S. Senate in November.
Mrs. Hagan, who was first elected in 2008 buoyed by the groundswell of support for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, now struggles with North Carolina voters who largely disapprove of her and President Obama.
In the debate, she’ll have to distance herself from Mr. Obama and Democratic policies that are unpopular in the Tar Heel State, including the expectation that the president soon will use executive action to ease deportations and other immigration laws.
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“Her goal is to distance herself from Obama and to some extent from the Democratic Party,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic political analyst in North Carolina, who runs PoliticsNC.com. “The debate is an opportunity to illustrate that, to show that she is in fact an independent broker and make the case that she is more beholden to the people of North Carolina than she is any party label.”
Mr. Tillis, who himself suffers from the image problem of being the leader of wildly unpopular legislature, has worked to reinforce Mrs. Hagan’s ties to the president. In attack ads and on the stump, he has repeatedly reminded voters that Mrs. Hagan voted 95 percent of the time with Mr. Obama’s Senate Democrats.
Mrs. Hagan also must avoid “looking overly defensive,” a characteristic she has repeatedly displayed while dodging questions about Mr. Obama and immigration policies, said Mr. Mills.
“She needs to show that she’s not getting in a defensive posture when she is being attacked or her policies are getting attacks,” he said. “She needs to take some firm stands and learn how to talk to the public. Hagan needs to stand up and make a strong case for why people should re-elect her and really introduce herself to the electorate.”
U.S. immigration laws and North Carolina education policy have emerged as key issues in the Senate race.
Mr. Tillis has blasted Mrs. Hagan for voting against a measure that would have attempted to block Mr. Obama from unilaterally halting deportations by withholding funding for it.
SEE ALSO: Boehner wins in Ohio, Tillis takes North Carolina race
The issue has energized conservative voters nationwide.
“Kay was clear that she didn’t support the supplemental funding bill because it didn’t get to the root causes of the problem,” said Hagan campaign spokesman Chris Hayden. “She has also been abundantly clear that she does not support amnesty and does not believe the President should do this by this executive order because it is Congress’ responsibility.”
He said that Mrs. Hagan was eager to make her case for re-election in the debate.
“Kay is ready to speak directly to North Carolina voters about the contrast in this race between her record of putting North Carolina first and Speaker Tillis’ record of fighting for the wrong priorities,” Mr. Hayden said.
Mr. Tillis not only must present himself as a viable alternative to Mrs. Hagan, but must repair his damaged image after a divisive legislative session this year, including political feuding over education spending.
Mrs. Hagan has hammered Mr. Tillis for presiding over measures that she says caused “larger class sizes, fewer [teacher assistants], and other damaging education cuts.”
Mr. Tillis has responded by touting legislation that gave North Carolina teachers a 7 percent raise. Democratic critics, however, counter that the raises were front-loaded for new teachers and educators with 15 years experience or more received no pay raise.
Regardless of voters’ views of the legislature, Mr. Tillis must run on his record as speaker of the North Carolina General Assembly.
In the debate, Mr. Tillis will highlight a “record of achievement,” said North Carolina Republican Party spokesman William Allison.
“As Speaker, he helped pass pro-growth tax reform, balanced the budget after years of Democrat fiscal irresponsibility, and gave teachers a historic pay raise,” he aid. “That’s a sharp contrast to Senator’s Hagan failed record.”
Mr. Mills, the political analyst, said both candidates have suffered battered images from the flood of outside money that early this year began blanketing the state with TV attack ads.
“This is the problem with all the money in these races. The race has come down to [a question of] not who should we elect but who is worse,” he said. “By the time the election happens we will have been watching ads about how awful each of them are for a year.”