RALEIGH, N.C. — Thom Tillis thought his last day as speaker of the North Carolina House would be weeks ago, after which he would devote all his energies to running for the U.S. Senate. Instead, on Saturday morning, Tillis stood gavel in hand in the state House chamber, presiding over the passage of a budget that kept lawmakers at work well into the summer. Now, finally, he is finished — unless something else comes up to demand his time at the State Legislative Building.
Republicans have bemoaned the fact that their candidate was tied down in the state house, but in a conversation after the session adjourned, Tillis insisted it wasn't a problem. "It just means I've had two full-time jobs for an extra month," he said.
Tillis has a vintage Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots toy on the conference room table in his office, with one red and one blue plastic robot exchanging jabs in a little boxing ring. "A conflict resolution device," he laughingly called it, but it's not a bad symbol of the legislative session in which Democrats pounded Tillis day after day, most often with accusations he "cut almost $500 million from education." (PolitiFact recently noted that North Carolina's education budget "has increased every year since Tillis became speaker in 2011" — there haven't been any cuts — but nevertheless rated the claim "half true" based on the Democrats' contention that spending should have gone up even more.)
The Democratic strategy has been simple and clear: bash the Republican-controlled legislature and bring down not only the institution's approval ratings but also those of the speaker, who just happens to have a good chance to be the state's next U.S. senator. It's working; in a recent survey by the Democratic polling firm PPP, the legislature had a 19 percent approval rating. Tillis, as House leader, scored a 24 percent positive rating, although many North Carolinians still don't have an opinion about him. At times, it seems as if disapproval of the legislature is all Tillis' opponent, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, has going for her. Her own job approval rating stands at 40 percent — dangerous territory for an incumbent seeking re-election.
Given that, it's probably safe to say that disapproval of the legislature is responsible for Hagan's current lead in the polls. The horse race was nearly even for several months and then, as spring turned to summer, and the session in Raleigh dragged on amid nasty infighting, Hagan began to inch ahead of Tillis. In the latest PPP survey, completed in late July, she was up by seven, 41 percent to 34 percent. Very few people expect that lead to last. "In the summer of 2013, we saw Sen. Hagan's numbers go up during the legislative session," said PPP's Tom Jensen. "And then, within a month of the legislature going back home, everything went back to the way it was before." If that happens again, look for the race to return to a tie in the final two months.
The North Carolina campaign is one of a handful of Senate contests — the others being Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, Iowa, and Colorado — whose outcome will determine whether Republicans gain control of the Senate in November. But it has received less coverage, and made much less noise, than some of the others. Why? One pretty plausible explanation is that neither Hagan nor Tillis is a particularly compelling candidate. But the campaign's nondescript quality might make a particularly instructive. It's not a battle of personalities. It's not a battle of political dynasties. It's a straight-up showdown between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat in a particularly critical swing state — the only state (other than Indiana, which doesn't have a Senate race this year) that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then for Mitt Romney in 2012. If the GOP can win here, it can win the Senate.
A different kind of contest
As a key race, North Carolina has of course attracted millions in spending by outside groups on both sides. Even though it seems to have a generic quality, some Republican strategists put the race in the top tier of those likely to give victory to the GOP. "We think Arkansas, Iowa, and North Carolina are in a little cluster that is just a little more likely to turn over than Louisiana, Alaska, and Colorado," said a GOP strategist keeping close tabs on the Senate race. Why? "Hagan has not been able to establish herself the way that Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor and Mark Udall have been able to do," the strategist continued. "They're just stronger entities, even though Pryor is in a much more difficult state. Hagan is kind of nondescript. She doesn't make huge mistakes, but she doesn't really have a niche. She's one of these bland politicians who sticks to talking points and doesn't seem to cut through."
The problem for Republicans, the strategist continued, is that Tillis has a bit of the same problem. Yes, he is dragged down by his association with the legislature. And yes, some of the most conservative Republicans in the state view him as too moderate. But perhaps his biggest challenge is this, according to the strategist: "There's nothing special about him as a candidate. He's just kind of a nondescript state legislator. I would argue that this race is probably the two most bland, lacking-in-any-special-skill candidates of any top tier Senate race in the country. So I think it is a good measure of the two sides' ability to drive turnout and message."
Not too long ago, Hagan was a state legislator herself, until she challenged a weakened and disengaged Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the perfect storm year of 2008. Hagan rode a Democratic wave and the incredible momentum of the Obama campaign right into the Senate, winning easily, with 52 percent of the vote to Dole's 44 percent. Now, however, Hagan faces a completely different political environment. North Carolina turned against Obama in 2012. The president's approval rating is low — 40 percent in the PPP poll, about what it is nationally — and Hagan's own approval, now 41 percent, seems tied to Obama's. There's no weakened and disengaged Republican to challenge; Tillis might be uninspiring, but he's a solid lawmaker, and he's ready for a tough campaign. Hagan is in trouble.
Complicating the race, and probably helping Hagan a little bit, is the presence of a libertarian candidate who, at least at the moment, is performing a bit better than such candidates usually do. With Hagan up 41-34 in the latest PPP survey, libertarian Sean Haugh is at eight percent. Some Republicans believe that as the race progresses — 16 percent are still undecided — Haugh's total will go down to an expected two percent or so. But other observers point to the recent Virginia governor's race, in which neither Democrat Terry McAuliffe or Republican Ken Cuccinelli was particularly well-liked by the voters. In that race, a libertarian candidate pulled six and a half percent.
If something like that happens, would a strong libertarian showing hurt Tillis the most, as the conventional wisdom would have it, or would the damage be more equally divided between both candidates? Some Republicans believe that, while Tillis will lose more votes than Hagan, the ratio won't be nearly as bad as feared. "Look at Virginia last year," said the outside strategist. "You had a lot of disaffected liberals who were part of that. Our analysis was that it was about 60-40. Yes, it hurt Cuccinelli, but it wasn't the 90-10 that conventional wisdom would tell you."
The problem, of course, is that even if Haugh gets just two or three percent, and even if his presence hurts Tillis just a little more than Hagan — even if that happens, if the race is really close, the libertarian presence could end up hurting Tillis in a very big way.
A Democrat's dilemma
The Tillis campaign calls its opponent "do nothing Kay Hagan" and labels her "one of North Carolina's most ineffective senators." Hagan has never sponsored a bill that became law, the Tillis campaign points out, adding with a little twist of the knife: "Over the last 40 years, Kay Hagan and John Edwards are the only two elected North Carolina senators who have failed to introduce a bill that was signed into law."
That argument is particularly satisfying for Republicans because Hagan won six years ago largely by portraying Dole as ineffective. Now, Hagan is getting a taste of her own medicine. But Hagan has bigger problems than her own lackluster record. The most serious is the one-two punch of President Obama's approval rating and Obamacare.
"Her numbers have tracked really closely with President Obama's in the state," said PPP's Jensen. In the company's latest poll, Obama's approval-disapproval rating in North Carolina was 41-53. Hagan's was 40-50. The numbers have been close to each other for quite a while, and certainly since Obamacare became a reality in many Americans' lives last fall. In a November 2013 PPP poll, Obama's approval-disapproval rating was 43-53, while Hagan's was 44-49. The president's ratings have been hurting Hagan for a long time.
And then there is Obamacare. "It's unpopular," said Jensen. "About 35 to 40 percent support it, about 50 to 55 percent oppose it … The more Obamacare has been in the spotlight, the more [Hagan] has struggled."
One particularly unhappy reality for Hagan is that she is one of those lawmakers who, during the debate over Obamacare, promised constituents that if they liked their health care plan, they would be able to keep it. "People who have insurance they're happy with can keep it," she told National Journal in June 2009.
Then, in November 2009, with Obamacare's disastrous rollout in the news, Hagan had a catastrophe of her own when she participated in a conference call with reporters who wanted to know her reaction to the situation. She stumbled over questions about people being able to keep coverage, about increased premiums, about cancelled policies. "The Q&A session was so painful that the senator should qualify for trauma coverage under the Affordable Care Act," wrote the Washington Post's Dana Milbank.
Now, like other Democrats, Hagan stresses that she wants to "fix" the health care law. "She believes that there are some commonsense fixes that can be made to the law," said Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner. "But she is not willing to go back to a time that Speaker Tillis wants to, when women could be charged a higher premium. North Carolinians don't want to go back to that time." Voters will likely hear more such talk — an Obamacare defense coupled with a jab over women's issues — as the campaign unfolds.
Finally, since the Affordable Care Act passed with 60 votes — all Democrats, at precisely the number required to break a Republican filibuster — it's easy for GOP candidates like Tillis to argue that their opponents provided the "deciding vote" for Obamacare. And indeed, Hagan did. "Her worst vote was the deciding vote for Obamacare," said Tillis.
What kind of senator?
In his State Legislative Building office, around the corner from the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots, Tillis sometimes drinks coffee from a mug shaped like a hand grenade, complete with pin. Despite the martial Imagery, though, the speaker likes to talk about his bipartisanship. On the last day of the legislative session, he wore a purple tie with a matching purple pocket square. When I asked if that had any meaning -- a mix of red and blue? — Tillis told me the story of Larry Womble, a House Democrat, now out of office, who used to wear an outrageous purple suit on the last day of session.
Tillis explained that he worked with Womble, a liberal African-American, on a bill to compensate victims of a state eugenics sterilization program that ran from 1929 to 1974. "The Democratic leadership would never bring it up," Tillis said. "I ended it up bringing it up." The bill passed, and Womble praised Tillis's work as the "first time that any speaker, Democrat or Republican, has gone as far as he has gone." In his office after the session ended Saturday, Tillis called Womble "as liberal as you can get, but he and I found common ground." And so Tillis wears the purple tie as a tribute to Womble — and a reminder that he can work with Democrats.
In the race so far, there has been so much attention paid to Tillis' legislative work that there has been little discussion of what he might do were he elected to the U.S. Senate. So after the session, I asked him about some of the national issues he'll face in the Senate race.
On Obamacare, Tillis, like nearly every other Republican running for federal office, said, "I think we have to repeal it." The new system hurts far more people than it benefits and is "unsustainable" in the long run, he said. Still, Tillis is concerned that Capitol Hill Republicans haven't united behind an Obamacare alternative. "Republicans have to have an answer to the when-you-repeal-it-what-are-you-replacing-it-with question," he said. "We owe the American people a solution to the problem."
Tillis is under no illusions that the GOP, even if it controlled the House and Senate, could actually repeal Obamacare with its namesake still in the White House. And even after, given the structure of exchanges and subsidies that now exists, repeal can't be done in one fell swoop. "I think you're going to have to ramp it down," Tillis said. "Any repeal measure needs to be married with how do you provide a landing, or a transition, to some of those who are on Obamacare."
On immigration, Tillis called the Republicans who voted last year for the Gang of Eight bipartisan reform bill "well intentioned." But he said the reform process "meandered and started expanding to a point where they lost sight of what needs to be done first" — that is, securing the border. Tillis said he would have voted "no" on the bill.
On last year's government shutdown, Tillis tried to make clear that he would not have supported it, but he took care not to demean the motives of the Republicans who did. "I think what some of the members did was well-intentioned," he said, but "you've got to fund government operations."
Tillis supports tax reform, but he distanced himself from the GOP stereotype of prescribing tax cuts for all economic ills. "You can't lead with the notion that everything gets fixed by just reducing taxes," he said. "There are a lot of other structural things that we have to do if we're going to try to create better-paying middle-class jobs, and I think you do that by leading with regulatory reform." He cited the EPA, plus Dodd-Frank and other strictures on business, as measures he'd like to see loosened.
Tillis said he believes Hagan's second-worst vote, after the one for Obamacare, was her support of Majority Leader Harry Reid's successful use of the "nuclear option" to kill the Senate filibuster for nominations. It's a little inside baseball, Tillis said, but it's indicative of the anger and division inside Reid's Senate. "He's created one of the most caustic environments in Washington in my lifetime," Tillis said. "There's not a single example where Kay Hagan has stood up and said, 'This is not right.'"
For all Hagan's weaknesses, Tillis knows he has a hard race ahead of him, and he's trying to get ready. On his left wrist, he wears a FitBit, which is a small black bracelet that monitors various health indicators — pulse, food intake, distance walked, and more — to give him a sense of his general fitness. He gained a lot of weight when he first joined the legislature, Tillis said, then lost most of it, then gained some back again. Now, he realizes that winning a Senate race in today's environment will take everything he's got.
"This is something that requires mind and body to be at top performance to be successful," he said. "And we intend to be."
This story was first published at 12: 37 a.m.