Big question in N.C. Senate race: Who’s worse - Obama or GOP?

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., as she speaks with members of the media at a campaign field office in Goldsboro, N.C., Aug. 25, 2014, file. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., as she speaks with members of the media at a campaign field office in Goldsboro, N.C., Aug. 25, 2014, file. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) AP

They rose together, both elected in 2008. Now President Barack Obama and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., are struggling together.

Since Obama and Hagan both won in North Carolina six years ago, seen as harbingers of a resurgence of the Democrats into the South, Republicans have taken the North Carolina House of Representatives and won the state back in the 2012 presidential race.

And with Obama’s popularity sinking, Hagan is struggling to win a second term, her seat a top target for the Republicans in their quest to win control of the U.S. Senate and total control of Congress for the final two years of Obama’s presidency. The race between Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House, is one of the costliest and most pivotal in the country.

“I don’t know if any other state can say their race is going to be closer,” said independent analyst Charles Cook.

Hagan is vulnerable in large part because of Obama, and she works hard to demonstrate her independence from him. Yet she is still neck and neck in the polls, thanks in part to complaints about the aggressive conservative course Tillis and the Republicans have charted in the state government since seizing power.

Hagan was a state senator when she defeated Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., in 2008. The same year, Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976.

That was then. Obama’s approval rating in North Carolina dropped to 38 percent in a poll released Monday by Elon University.

“People have lost confidence in President Obama and Hagan,” said Tillis, 54, a former executive with PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM who lives in suburban Charlotte.

“This race is going to be decided by the national mood,” says Tillis strategist Paul Shumaker. “Our voters have naturally become more focused on national issues than they have on state issues.”

Not if Hagan has anything to say about it.

Tillis, she said in a recent debate, stood for policies “taking our state backward.”

She and her allies have spent millions on ads tying Tillis to controversial moves by the General Assembly, which Republicans took over in 2010 for the first time in over a century. Since Tillis became speaker in 2011, GOP lawmakers have put limits on voting, rejected an expansion of Medicaid, passed restrictions on abortion and forced schools to scramble for resources.

At the same time, Hagan works to establish her independence from Obama. When he announced a visit to Charlotte this month to speak to the American Legion convention, for example, she issued a statement faulting his administration for not doing enough for veterans.

She also touts her ranking by the nonpartisan National Journal as the Senate’s most moderate member, even as Tillis trumpets her record of voting with the president 96 percent of the time.

“The president is not running in this election,” says Hagan. “What this election is about (is) the contrast between what I stand for and what Thom Tillis stands for.”

With the race close and the stakes high, people and groups outside the state are pouring in cash to influence the result.

Only Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is fighting for his seat, has seen more spending on a Senate race than North Carolina, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Much of that – at least $22 million – has come from outside groups. Americans for Prosperity and other groups tied to the conservative Koch brothers have run ads for Tillis. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Senate Majority Fund, associated with Majority Leader Harry Reid, have boosted Hagan.

Outside money has helped Tillis offset Hagan’s nearly 3-to-1 advantage in campaign fundraising.

But he’s still playing catchup. A week after winning his primary in May, Tillis opened a legislative session that would keep him off the campaign trail for almost three months. Since it ended in late August, he’s spend most of his time raising money. That even kept him out of the state last week, with no public appearances.

In fact, since the session ended, he has made just two public forays that didn’t involve fundraisers. One came in the rural eastern part of the state, where he met with farmers and visited small towns.

In Wilson, N.C., Tillis wore jeans and trail shoes as he and his wife, Susan, visited three agricultural operations sandwiched between breakfast at Amy Jo’s Country Restaurant and lunch at Parker’s Barbecue.

John Miller was eating breakfast at Amy Jo’s and told The Wilson Times that he hadn’t made up his mind in the race. Martin Seltzer, sitting with him, said he’ll vote for Tillis because, he said, Hagan supports Obama too often.

Hagan has spent more time campaigning, often at fundraisers.

“Frankly, she’s a better senator than she is a candidate,” says Charlotte supporter Mike Daisley. “She’s a little wonkish. She’s a detail-oriented policy person.”

Hagan voters are motivated by a legislative session that left many Democrats feeling disenfranchised and sparked regular protests that drew thousands.

“Somebody has to be held accountable for what the legislature did,” says Charlotte Democrat Steve Porter. “And it’s going to be Tillis.”

In what’s expected to be a low-turnout election in a non-presidential year, both campaigns are competing for the votes of women even as they turn to their bases. Each says a ground game will be crucial.

Tillis is relying on a GOP organization augmented by groups such as Americans for Prosperity. Hagan is counting on teachers, women and organized labor.

A wild card is Libertarian Sean Haugh. Polls have shown him with up to 8 percent support. Even a slice of the vote could be decisive in a close election.

Haugh, who delivers pizzas for a living, was content to not be invited to the first debate.

“I’m going to spend the night doing something truly productive,” he said that night, “by showing up for my regular shift at work delivering pizzas.”

Morrill works for The Charlotte Observer. Craig Jarvis of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.