The 2014 North Carolina Senate campaign is set to be the most expensive race in U.S. history. Throughout the polling, the margin of victory between incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and her opponent, Speaker Thom Tillis, has remained small. In an election where party control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance, North Carolina is one of the most important races in the country. In the political world, the closer races tend to be the most expensive ones.
“If either side wants to gain or retain control of the Senate, they need to look at North Carolina,” said Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science at Elon University and assistant director of the Elon Poll.
The importance of North Carolina in the midterm election is not determined by Hagan or Tillis themselves or any kind of political influence the state carries. Husser speculated that Republicans have a “decent chance” of winning a majority, but said the number of Senate seats that could go either way is only eight.
“But that means there’s not much of a margin of error,” he said.
Husser also added that the North Carolina election is not being looked at closely because Hagan has held a small, consistent lead — a lead Husser said is over-estimated.
North Carolina politics
North Carolina is considered a toss-up state in this election in part due to its reputation as a “purple” state, less conservative than its neighbors in the South. But after electing the first Republican controlled legislature and governor for the first time since Reconstruction, this descriptor has been called into question.
“It’s still a swing state if you define it as having a 10-point gap,” Husser said. “That said, North Carolina is more like a purple state with a reddish tint. But that can change over time, and it probably will.”
Part of what has made North Carolina a more Republican-friendly state in recent elections is opposition to the president’s administration. In effect, as Husser put it, Pres. Obama made North Carolina a swing state.
“You could speculate that if the climate toward Obama wasn’t so negative, the legislation out of the General Assembly wouldn’t be so reactionary,” he said.
North Carolina’s diverse political affiliates play a part in keeping the midterm race competitive, as the left-leaning Moral Monday demonstrations brought state-wide and national attention to the actions of the Republican state legislature.
“Hagan’s doing so well because of a foundation set up by Moral Monday,” Husser said.
By contrast, Husser said Tillis is being hurt by his link to the General Assembly and his day job as Speaker of the House prevents him from doing more in-person campaigning.
Stakes in election
If Tillis wins the election, the possibility of the Republican Party controlling the U.S. Senate, and therefore both houses in the Capitol, will be more likely. But if Republicans win a majority, it’s unlikely that much conservative legislation will make it through the two chambers, since Obama still have veto power.
“Anyone telling you that if Republicans win the Senate, Obamacare will be repealed is telling you misguided information,” Husser said.
But, what control of the Senate would change, would be the ability for Republicans to appoint and confirm federal judges, for which there are many vacancies nationwide due to blockades by the Senate’s Republican minority.
And while campaigning is continuing in North Carolina, in many ways, the election has already started, as early voting is open from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.
“In 2012, more votes were cast in early voting than on Election Day,” Husser said.
Voting at Elon
Voter turnout among college-aged people is particularly low, but the presidents of Elon’s two largest political organizations — College Democrats and College Republicans — urged students to vote.
Julia Mueller, president of College Republicans, said everyone should vote and research the issues close to them.
“If ObamaCare is a concern, consider that Senator Hagan was the deciding vote for the act and that raised healthcare costs for students in North Carolina,” Mueller said. “Speaker Tillis wants to fully repeal and defund ObamaCare. By repealing this, costs can be reduced by allowing the private sector to offer healthcare.”
Bobby King, president of College Democrats, said the Senate election will be important not just because it decides who will represent North Carolina, but because it will show how North Carolinians feel about the state’s General Assembly.
“Speaker Tillis’ tenure was marked with the policies that proved far from political center, passing one of the most restrictive Voter ID laws in the nation, and cutting $500 million from public education,” King said. “In my opinion as a citizen, Senator Hagan is a political leader willing to compromise for the benefit of average North Carolinians.”