RALEIGH — Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis are meeting for the first debate of their campaign stretch run, a key contest in the national battle for Senate control.
Their faceoff today at the University of North Carolina television studio is the first big event of the Labor Day-to-Election Day period. Democrats can’t afford to lose Hagan’s seat if they hope to hang onto their Senate majority in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Republicans see the North Carolina race as key to their drive to gain six seats in the chamber, enough to grab control.
The long-awaited debate, the first of three, is expected to feature themes familiar to North Carolinians barraged with nearly $29 million in advertising and other expenditures by the candidates and outside groups. It is the second-most expensive Senate race — after Kentucky’s — of the midterm elections.
Look for robust exchanges that pit Washington against Raleigh, by candidates who present sharply different portraits of each other.
Democrats have depicted Tillis as the scheming engineer of the Republican insurgency in North Carolina, joined at the hip with Karl Rove and the billionaire financier Koch brothers. Tillis paints himself as a former PTA president who grew up poor but climbed the work ladder to become an IBM consultant. He’s also likely to take credit for a rebounding economy and lower unemployment through lower tax rates.
Hagan has spent the summer on television commercials talking about how she’s “not too far left, not too far right. Just like North Carolina.” But she also will want to make clear that “moderate” doesn’t mean “milquetoast” in the Senate.
Tillis has stuck to depicting Hagan as an Obama Democrat, citing her vote for the president’s signature health care overhaul and blaming her for problems with veterans’ medical care. Hagan has been working on veterans’ issues for years, including drinking-water contamination that was once a problem at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune.
Hagan has made the campaign a referendum on what’s happening in Raleigh, arguing that Tillis’ brand of politics cut public education, slashed unemployment benefits and weakened voter protections for minorities.
Tillis says his accomplishments resulted in lower unemployment and tax rates. He also helped pass a cleanup plan for North Carolina’s coal ash ponds following a Duke Energy spill.
Education also is likely to play a large role in the debate. Tillis is expected to mention the average 7 percent pay raises that public school teachers got this fall from the Legislature. Critics have said the raises are very small for veteran teachers. Hagan’s camp says $500 million has been cut from North Carolina public education the past two years under Tillis’ watch. Republicans say the figure is misleading and overall education spending has increased.
Gay marriage could surface in the debate. Hagan supports legalizing gay marriage. Tillis was House speaker when the Legislature put North Carolina’s gay marriage ban on the statewide ballot.