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Senate Control May Swing On North Carolina's Unpopularity Contest

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., takes questions from the media in April during an appearance in Durham. Hagan has tried for her first 5 1/2 years in the U.S. Senate to convince North Carolina voters that being in the middle of the road is a good thing.
Gerry Broome
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., takes questions from the media in April during an appearance in Durham. Hagan has tried for her first 5 1/2 years in the U.S. Senate to convince North Carolina voters that being in the middle of the road is a good thing.

North Carolina is one of the half-dozen states that could cost the Democrats their majority in the Senate this November, and both contenders in the race are hoping to capitalize on a backlash.

Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan wants voters to punish her Republican challenger Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, for unpopular state laws. Tillis wants to aim anger toward President Obama at Hagan.

It's expected in elections for candidates to run against each other's records, but in purplish North Carolina, Hagan is hoping she has some unusually potent fodder.

Tillis, as speaker of the state House, was one of the guys at the helm when Republicans took over both houses of North Carolina's Legislature and governor's office in 2012 — the first time that had happened in more than a century. Last year they went on a historic lawmaking binge, enacting new voter ID laws, slashing unemployment benefits, cutting taxes, passing new abortion restrictions and allowing concealed guns in bars and restaurants.

Protests called "Moral Mondays" erupted across the state, with thousands demonstrating in rallies and hundreds arrested throughout the year.

Gerald Silver, the pastor of Freedom Temple Church in West Raleigh, N.C., was one of those arrested.

"There's always been this undercurrent in North Carolina of wanting to return back to those days of Jim Crow. But they didn't have the political means to do it," said Silver — until now.

Hagan is hoping to ride that anxiety — that feeling that a vote for Tillis is a vote to return to North Carolina's uncomfortable past — to victory.

But head west an hour to Stamey's barbecue joint in Greensboro, N.C., and you'll hear a similar tone from the other side.

"I think she's a liberal," said Wayne Nunn. "I think she aligns herself in her voting record with Obama and his agenda."

While Hagan is counting on a backlash against a state government that some feel has veered too far right, Tillis is counting on a backlash against an unpopular president. It's the question of what people hate more — the state government in Raleigh or the federal government in Washington.

When it comes to Obama, don't even get Jimmy Piper started.

"He's incompetent, to start with. He's a liar ... " Piper began.

"Not so loud ... " his wife, Margaret, said, interrupting him with a nudge from across the table.

" ... He's just literally ruining this country," Piper added. "He's a socialist."

And Piper said Hagan is no different — that she supports giving everything away to people who just need to work harder. He remembers struggling his way from the bottom up in the metalworking industry.

"I was poor, dead poor," he said. "Lived dead poor, we did, when we were growing up — as most people did. But people now are led to believe you don't have to do that. 'We, the government's going to take care of you. We'll give you what you need. You just don't worry about it.' "

But voters like Jimmy Piper probably always were out of reach for Hagan. She has her sights set on a bloc of centrist voters who may be key to winning a state that voted for President Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney four years later.

Hagan's strategy to get those centrist voters is to keep the focus on state government issues — like education.

"In Raleigh, Speaker Tillis slashed $500 million from public education funding. He ended a tax break to help families save for college for their kids," she said at a recent news conference in Greensboro, where she also met 10-year-old Victoria Cooke.

"I tell you, everything I do is for your future," Hagan told her, and then reminded Victoria to turn off the TV and stop playing computer games.

While each candidate in the race is calling the other the extremist, Hagan says she's right down the middle.

"National Journal has ranked me the most moderate senator in the nation," Hagan said with pride in an interview after the event. "It shows I can work across the aisle. I am not there just butting heads, trying to keep this gridlock going. I am there to get constructive action taken and make a difference."

But there are plenty of voters in North Carolina who would prefer a senator who butted heads with the president a little more often.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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