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This Dead-Heat Senate Race Is a Bellwether for the Whole Country

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If you turn on a television in North Carolina right now, there’s a good chance that among the more than $50 million worth of ads for the U.S. Senate race, you’ll see this one from Thom Tillis. It’s a spot attacking his opponent, Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, for skipping a February Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats in order to attend a cocktail party fundraiser on Park Avenue in New York. “While ISIS grew,” the narrator intones over images of AK-47-touting Jihadis, “Obama did nothing. Senator Hagan did cocktails.” It’s a brutal—and brutally effective—ad.

On a recent afternoon in the tiny eastern North Carolina town of Sims, Hagan fired back. A petite woman with carefully coiffed blonde hair, she’d changed out of her standard business suit and was wearing jeans and boots; standing in the giant tobacco shed on the farm of one of her supporters, she told a campaign rally that Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina State House of Representatives, had his own truancy issues: He’d skipped the annual meeting of the North Carolina Agribusiness Council. “Speaker Tillis was supposed to be there,” Hagan said with as much solemnity as she could muster. “It was on a Friday, he called them Wednesday night, or somebody on his team called, ten o’clock at night and said, ‘Oh, he’s going up to this meeting in Richmond.’” Hagan paused for a beat. “I was there!”

And there you have the Tillis-Hagan race in a nutshell: It’s ISIS versus the Agribusiness Council, Park Avenue versus Richmond, and, above all else, national (and, at times, international) versus local. Six months ago, the conventional wisdom held that the North Carolina Senate race would be a bellweather—that if Hagan, an unimpressive first-term Democrat in a purple state, could hold on, then Democrats would hold onto the Senate. Two months ago, the CW shifted, as it became apparent that Hagan was maintaining a steady lead over Tillis while other Democratic incumbents once thought less vulnerable (like Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and Mark Pryor in Arkansas) seemed destined for defeat and the Senate appeared headed toward a GOP majority. North Carolina was proving to be the exception that proved the rule. Hagan, one of her advisors told me at the time, was “defying expectations if not political gravity.” But now, in the last couple weeks of the campaign, Tillis has picked up momentum from what appears to be a national Republican wave and Hagan has come back to earth. With the race essentially tied going into election day, North Carolina is going to tell us if that wave is actually a tsunami.

Hagan’s focus on the local has been comical at times. “I am thrilled to hear that North Carolina is becoming one of the sweet potato capitals of the world,” she said during her speech in Sims, before launching into a long ode to the orange-fleshed tuber that called to mind Bubba’s thoughts on shrimp in Forrest Gump. The banners at her campaign events read “NORTH CAROLINA FIRST,” as if North Carolinians worried that their junior senator harbored secret allegiances to Virginia or South Carolina.

On the issue of education, however, Hagan’s hyper-local strategy has definitely struck a chord. Beginning in the early 1960s, with Terry Sanford’s governorship, North Carolina’s business and political elites formed a bipartisanship consensus around public education funding: they supported it—a lot of it. In the process, North Carolina became a leader in the South. But in 2010, with the Republican takeover of the state legislature, and then in 2012, when Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor, that consensus unraveled as the GOP slashed education funding (along with funding for other social programs) to pay for huge tax cuts. “North Carolina has been governed by moderates, both Democrats and Republicans, until the current experiment to make the Tar Heel State a national laboratory for libertarian conservatism,” the Raleigh News & Observer’s Rob Christensen recently wrote.

Many smart political observers in North Carolina believe that the experimentation has gone beyond what Tillis (and McCrory, for that matter) envisioned—that the North Carolina House speaker was caught in a John Boehner–like bind as the more conservative elements of his party pushed him further than he originally wanted to go. But whatever Tillis’s true feelings, Hagan has made sure that, in the Senate campaign, he has had to own the state legislature’s record, especially on education. She and her surrogates have repeatedly harped on the fallout from those education cuts in the most granular detail—from a reduction of teacher’s assistants in Rockingham County to a shortfall in bus drivers in Wake County. As one Hagan advisor said to National Journal’s Alex Roarty, “We turned this into a school-board race.”

When I asked Hagan after a recent campaign event what she, as a U.S. senator, could do to improve public education in North Carolina, she gave me some boilerplate about Senate legislation she was sponsoring to improve technology in school. She was much more interested in talking about her time in as a state senator. “I served ten years in the state senate, six years I co-chaired our budget, and we invested in education every year,” Hagan told me. “In North Carolina now we are forty-eighth in the nation in per pupil spending. We’re going to be a third-world country within our own country in North Carolina if we don’t change that dynamic, and that’s what Speaker Tillis has put us in.”

Amazingly, North Carolina and national Republicans never seemed to foresee the bind they’ve put themselves in with Tillis. Faced with a couple of Tea Party candidates in the GOP primary, a pastor and a doctor backed by the likes of Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, respectively, the state and national GOP establishment threw their support behind Tillis. An uncharismatic businessman-turned-politician with a soft face and close-set eyes, Tillis is no one’s idea of a political superstar. But that was what the GOP wanted: an inoffensive and generic Republican who could ride the anti-Obama wave, much like Bill Cassidy is doing against Landrieu in Louisiana. The problem is that, as speaker, Tillis has been easy to tie to the unpopular legislature. As Thomas Mills has written, Tillis’s “greatest accomplishment has turned into his greatest liability.” And rather than him riding the public’s anger at Washington, it’s Hagan who has been able to benefit from their far more immediate disgust with Raleigh.

The result has been a Republican candidate who, while easy to demonize to his opponents, isn’t someone who naturally lights a fire among his supporters. That was especially evident on a recent evening when Tillis held a giant rally at a tobacco warehouse in Smithfield. Tillis’s warm-up acts, a smattering of down-ballot GOP candidates, spoke in fire-and-brimstone tones about the abomination of gay marriage and the terrifying prospect of Attorney General Eric Holder winding up on the Supreme Court. “Where else can you go now and still have the privilege to pray and worship and say the pledge of allegiance to the flag?” the local sheriff asked the crowd. “They’re not going to take that away from us, y’all!” The crowd responded with heart-felt whoops and hollers. But Tillis seemed to leave them cold with his speech. He hit the requisite notes on ISIS and Ebola and made a strangely defensive plug for his tenure in Raleigh, saying, “I think I’ve proved over these last four years that when I go and get a job, I do what I say I’m going to do, and sometimes you get criticized for it.”

When Tillis was done, he introduced the evening’s headliner, Texas Governor Rick Perry—one of a legion of national Republicans who have come to North Carolina to campaign for Tillis. (Hagan, by contrast, has had a couple of events featuring the Clintons, but has largely campaigned without the help of national Democrats, and has taken pains—at times painful pains—to distance herself from Obama.) The animated, downright manic Perry was everything Tillis was not, pumping his fists and, at one point, even letting out a Ric Flair-like “wooooo.” But Perry’s outsized persona only served to make the man for whom he was stumping seem even smaller. Perry closed his speech with the story of how he accompanied his father, a B-17 tailgunner during World War II, on a visit to the American cemetery in Normandy, France. “Each one of those headstones was facing west, and they face west across the ocean and they look at us,” Perry said in a dramatic whisper. “I think they look at us in silent judgment of whether or not we have in fact lived up to their sacrifice.” Perry urged the crowd to justify those soldiers’ sacrifice. His voice rising, he said, “I will suggest to you that Thom Tillis is exactly the kind of individual that they were willing to lay their lives down for; that Thom Tillis is exactly the type of patriot that they want in the United States Senate; that Thom Tillis will breathe their memories clear and powerful.”

Perry trotting out the D-Day dead on behalf of any contemporary politician would be a risky move, but doing it for a schlub like Tillis was actually more comical than offensive—as if when Tom Hanks told Matt Damon to “earn this,” he meant that he wanted Damon to vote for a milquetoast candidate in a midterm election 70 years later. And yet, it served as an instructive moment. For Tillis to win against Hagan after she has run such a surprisingly strong race, voters in North Carolina can’t just be disappointed in Obama or Washington; they have to be feeling so angry about—and so imperiled by—the current state of affairs that even Tillis can be plausibly cast as a savior. In other words, if Tillis does win, then Republicans will have more to celebrate than just his victory.