North Carolina hosts one of the most watched electoral races in the country this year, as first-term Democratic Senator Kay Hagan is up for reelection. Who will win is already a toss-up, in a year where Republicans and Democrats are battling for control of the Senate. WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition Host Kevin Kniestedt to discuss the race.
KNIESTEDT: We’re three weeks from the primary election, why don’t you give us a quick rundown of where things stand?
BRADFORD: Sure. Hagan’s the shoo-in in the Democratic race—it really isn’t competitive. The Republican side is more interesting. There are eight candidates all together, but three have emerged as the main competitors. And it’s pretty amazing… they each represent one of the three major factions of the current Republican Party:
Thom Tillis, the Speaker of the North Carolina House, the establishment guy—he’s the favorite to win. He’s got the most money, and the support of folks like Republican strategist Karl Rove, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and North Carolina’s other senator, Richard Burr.
Then there’s Greg Brannon, who’s a doctor, and your classic Tea Party candidate. Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee—who are leaders of the Tea Party faction in Washington—support him.
And then Mark Harris, a pastor here in Charlotte, is the conservative evangelical. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has been fundraising for him.
KNIESTEDT: You said Tillis is the favorite. By how much?
BRADFORD: Not enough to his liking, I’m sure. The latest poll from the firm Public Policy Polling shows Tillis with just a 3 percent lead over Brannon, and within the margin of error. Harris is 7 points back. More concerning for Tillis is overall support is 18 percent. You need 40 percent, plus one vote to avoid a runoff with the second place winner. So, the race will probably come down to either Harris and Brannon fighting to overtake Tillis in a runoff.
KNIESTEDT: While that’s happening, there’s a lot of money pouring in, most of all for Hagan, even though she has the easiest path to the general election. Tell us about what role money is going to play in this election.
BRADFORD: Oh, huge. The Federal Elections Commissions puts North Carolina second in the nation for independent expenditures—$4 million all together. That’s money already spent on or against a candidate by an outside group. That doesn’t count say ads outside groups have reserved but haven’t paid for yet.
Right now, outside groups have spent $1.4 million in support of Hagan—mostly TV ads. Even more than that has been groups attacking Tillis—$1.8 million all together—which shows how much of a threat they think he is.
Karl Rove’s SuperPAC, American Crossroads, is in the middle of spending reportedly more than a million dollars on Tillis.
I talked to Catawba College political professor Michael Bitzer, who’s a friend of the show and as good of an expert as you’ll find on North Carolina politics. He says all this spending is the tip of the iceberg. Let’s play a bit of our conversation.
BITZER: Outside groups are going to be spending multiple times probably what the candidates themselves are going to be spending. Granted, both candidates are going to raise multi-million dollars. We’re probably talking about two, three, potentially four times what they raise being spent by outside groups. So, it’s going to feel like potentially another presidential election, even though it’s a midterm congressional election.
BRADFORD: Right, and that’s because this one is such a high priority target for both sides.
BITZER: Oh, definitely. This is within the realm of either the Republicans controlling the Senate or the Democrats.
BRADFORD: Sure, if you look at the expenditures, the most support by far goes to Hagan and the most opposition by far goes to Tillis. It’s about $1.8 million against Tillis and $1.4 million for Hagan. Why is that?
BITZER: I think you’ll start to see that once he either claims the nomination or if he needs to go into a primary—a second primary—that money will come flowing in.
BRADFORD: They’re kind of keeping their powder dry right now even though we’ve already got $4 million in.
BITZER: They are, and I think what’s been done against Hagan so far has certainly softened her up. Her poll numbers have been precipitously dropping—they’re kind of stabilizing right now in the low 40s. That’s definitely not where you want to be. But, people who identify as either a Democrat or a Republican, we know how they’re going to vote. The question in my mind is, is this going to be a base election where both sides try and drive their numbers of true affiliated voters up, or are they going to try to play for in the middle—even though those folks tend to not show up in election years.
BRADFORD: So, Kevin, what Bitzer’s talking about is two major forces in elections. One is pretty obvious—how many people do you appeal to. There’s a large swathe of independent voters—who are they going to choose? The other is voter enthusiasm—how many of the voters who already have an opinion are fired up and going to come out in vote? That’s huge in mid-term elections that aren’t as high on the radar for most people.
KNIESTEDT: Right, and the two have conflicted for Republicans in the last couple of elections.
BRADFORD: Right. Conservative, Tea Party Republicans have drawn more voters in the primary, and then have had a harder time in general elections appealing outside of that base. That’s why the Republican establishment is pushing Tillis so hard—they feel like he’ll have broader appeal. But one thing that’s interesting about the Public Policy Poll I mentioned is that it shows Hagan trailing almost all of the Republican field by a point or two. You heard Bitzer mention her approval numbers are pretty low. But, counter intuitively, there’s one candidate the poll shows her with a lead over: Thom Tillis.