Could the ‘Perfect’ Campaign Lose?

Kay Hagan is trying to prove months of good work can withstand a national climate that’s threatening other Dems. Republicans are confident she can’t.

Oct. 23, 2014, 4:04 p.m.

RALEIGH, N.C.—It took Kay Hagan 10 minutes to cov­er everything she wanted to say about pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The 61-year-old sen­at­or had picked the stu­dent uni­on here at North Car­o­lina State Uni­versity to de­liv­er a sem­in­ar of her own about all the ways she was build­ing up edu­ca­tion and all the ways her op­pon­ent Thom Tillis was tear­ing it down. She left no cri­ti­cism un­men­tioned: Tillis, who is speak­er of the state House, was even ac­cused of mak­ing it more ex­pens­ive for col­lege stu­dents to buy food.

Un­til a few weeks ago, this was Hagan’s secret sauce, the reas­on her cam­paign re­tained a slight lead while Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates else­where wil­ted dur­ing the sum­mer and early fall. The one-term sen­at­or had re­lent­lessly fo­cused on edu­ca­tion fund­ing in Au­gust and Septem­ber, beat­ing up on her GOP foe’s budget-cut­ting ten­ure like a box­er de­term­ined to meth­od­ic­ally wear down her op­pon­ent with body blows. For Hagan, keep­ing the fo­cus of her fed­er­al race on a loc­al is­sue had the be­ne­fit of in­su­lat­ing her­self from the tox­ic na­tion­al at­mo­sphere. As one Hagan ad­viser joked, “We turned this in­to a school-board race.”

But a smat­ter­ing of a few dozen stu­dents and journ­al­ists gathered to listen to Hagan had ap­par­ently heard enough. When the sen­at­or asked if the stu­dents seated in front of her—or the journ­al­ists milling be­hind them—had ad­di­tion­al ques­tions about her edu­ca­tion agenda, nobody spoke. When an aide then asked the me­dia if they had any ques­tions on oth­er top­ics, we nearly sur­roun­ded her.

Hagan tried to steer the dis­cus­sion back to­ward edu­ca­tion, but the ques­tions fo­cused else­where: Was she hy­po­crit­ic­al to com­plain about out­side-group money when some of them were back­ing her can­did­acy? Why was she not at­tend­ing the de­bate later that night? And had she re­versed her­self last week when she said she sup­por­ted a lim­ited travel ban to Ebola-stricken coun­tries?

“From the very, very be­gin­ning,” Hagan said, “I said a travel ban could be part “…”

A re­port­er cut her off. “Could or should be?”

“You know, I said it could be part of a broad­er strategy,” she con­tin­ued. “And that’s ex­actly where we are.”

Journ­al­ists rarely ask the ques­tions politi­cians want, no mat­ter the situ­ation. But the ex­change neatly cap­tured a shift­ing dy­nam­ic in North Car­o­lina: Since the start of Oc­to­ber, the is­sues at the con­test’s fore­front have moved from the loc­al mat­ters pre­ferred by Team Hagan to the na­tion­al top­ics, Ebola and IS­IS, that have be­ne­fit­ted Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates na­tion­wide. And it’s cre­ated a sense that Tillis, whose own cam­paign has be­come a punch­ing bag for Re­pub­lic­ans crit­ic­al of its ef­forts, could sneak through to a last-minute vic­tory.

In­ter­views with nearly a dozen top Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives re­vealed most of them share two ba­sic as­sess­ments of the race. For about a six-month stretch start­ing in April, thanks mostly to her own cam­paign’s su­per­i­or ef­forts, just about everything went right for Kay Hagan. And still, she might lose.

“If she loses, it’s be­cause of the na­tion­al en­vir­on­ment,” said Thomas Mills, a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic strategist in the state. “And if Hagan wins, it’s be­cause of her cam­paign.”

The ter­rain has morph­ed in North Car­o­lina; now it’s up to Hagan and her cam­paign to prove they can hold on to the lead for an­oth­er 10 days.

The would-be polit­ic­al geni­us

Thom Tillis skips steps when he walks up stairs. He had just left a large room on the first floor of the state GOP headquar­ters, where he and Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Re­ince Priebus last Sat­urday had told a few dozen ded­ic­ated sup­port­ers that North Car­o­lina was “ground zero” for re­gain­ing the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity. The top-rank­ing state House Re­pub­lic­an, now sit­ting in a second-floor board­room, ex­plains to me that he nor­mally does moun­tain-bik­ing to stay in shape but has had to cut back be­cause of the busy-ness of a Sen­ate cam­paign—hence, the stair-skip­ping.

The 54-year-old looks like a polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive—fit, with closely trimmed white hair and a sports coat paired with jeans—and he talks like one, too. He’s the only Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate in re­cent memory to de­clare that he wants to run the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee, and most who have watched his met­eor­ic rise in the state Le­gis­lature (he was first elec­ted there in only 2006) de­scribe him as a polit­ic­al an­im­al.

So it’s con­fus­ing that the story of his cam­paign would be one of stra­tegic mis­steps, of strug­gling to build a co­hes­ive case against his op­pon­ent. Only the last-month in­tru­sion of the na­tion­al polit­ic­al cli­mate has giv­en his can­did­acy hope.

Tillis him­self seemed to ac­know­ledge one of the prob­lems halfway through a stem-winder dur­ing Sat­urday’s rally. He had already checked off a list of cri­ti­cisms that soun­ded like a sum­mary of everything that’s gone wrong for the White House this year: the dif­fi­cult im­ple­ment­a­tion of Obama­care, scan­dal at Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion hos­pit­als, the rise of IS­IS in Syr­ia and Ir­aq, and the ar­rival of the Ebola vir­us in Dal­las. He even­tu­ally me­andered in­to a cri­ti­cism of the stim­u­lus and Hagan’s fam­ily mem­bers who be­ne­fit­ted from it, be­fore seem­ing to catch him­self.

“I could go on and on,” he said. “The prob­lem with Sen­at­or Hagan is that there are so many things to talk about that you can al­most not get the mes­sage out.”

In­deed, for months it was hard to tell what Tillis’ case against Hagan was, bey­ond his con­ten­tion that she was an ally of the un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent. It had the feel of a cam­paign that was re­act­ing to the is­sue of the day in­stead of de­lib­er­ately build­ing a case for months. (The Re­pub­lic­an even turned the series of high-pro­file fail­ures of the Secret Ser­vice in­to an ar­gu­ment that if Obama couldn’t pro­tect the White House, he couldn’t pro­tect Amer­ica.)

“People can only ab­sorb so much, so you really have to fo­cus on her fail­ure with jobs and eco­nomy, her fail­ure on the safety and se­cur­ity is­sues,” he told me in an in­ter­view. “You have so many friends call up and say, ‘What about this po­s­i­tion or an­oth­er po­s­i­tion?’ EPA reg­u­la­tions are an­oth­er ex­ample.”

I asked wheth­er he still thinks his cri­ti­cism of the Secret Ser­vice was fair game. “I think it weaves in­to the nar­rat­ive of what I con­sider a crisis of com­pet­ence,” he said. “Wheth­er it’s the IRS scan­dal, Benghazi, NSA, the Secret Ser­vice, it just really raises a ques­tion about this pres­id­ent’s abil­ity to lead.”

But since the on­set of Oc­to­ber, Tillis’s kit­chen-sink ap­proach has not­ably left one is­sue out—edu­ca­tion. It wasn’t al­ways the case: The GOP cam­paign had tried to push back on at­tacks that he had cut edu­ca­tion fund­ing and poin­ted to le­gis­la­tion he passed over the sum­mer to raise teach­er pay. But, out­gunned by Hagan, one of the cycle’s top fun­draisers, and Demo­crat­ic-aligned out­side groups, the de­fense fell flat.

So Tillis moved on. And he did so about the same time the na­tion­al cli­mate seemed to take hold in North Car­o­lina, giv­ing him free rein to run TV ads about IS­IS, Hagan’s missed hear­ings for the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, and the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol’s Ebola mis­haps. For the first time, his cam­paign was cut­ting through. He’s also be­ne­fit­ted from ma­jor in­vest­ments from out­side groups, loc­al stor­ies that put Hagan on the de­fens­ive, and a de­bate this week that Hagan de­clined to at­tend—giv­ing the Re­pub­lic­an es­sen­tially a free hour-long ad­vert­ise­ment. The state’s par­tic­u­lar war­i­ness to­ward the Re­pub­lic­an Party, a prob­lem in le­gis­lat­ive races there, has lif­ted some­what for the fed­er­al race.

“What you’re see­ing na­tion­ally, what you’re see­ing on the ground, is what people are start­ing to pick up on,” said Jordan Shaw, Tillis’s cam­paign man­ager. “She delayed a lot of this move­ment for as long as she could. But now that we’ve had de­bates, now that she’s been forced to talk about is­sues oth­er than edu­ca­tion, I think you’re start­ing to see the nar­rat­ive of this race has changed.”

Tillis might not have dis­covered the one de­fin­ing mes­sage of his cam­paign, but he also might not need one.

Back in the state GOP’s board­room, Tillis is con­fid­ent the comeback is already un­der­way. “We’re mov­ing in the right dir­ec­tion,” he said.

Hagan strikes back

Hagan is vis­ibly shiv­er­ing when she tells me she’s “frus­trated” with the pres­id­ent. She’s in Ashev­ille, a city em­bed­ded in the Ap­palachi­an Moun­tains on the state’s west­ern edge, and it’s a chilly fall Sunday morn­ing. She’s at a small biod­ies­el pro­duc­tion plant for the first stop on a nine-city “mes­sage tour” of the state.

“It seems to take a peri­od of time be­fore it’s re­cog­nized that it’s a very im­port­ant is­sue that needs more time and at­ten­tion,” Hagan says dur­ing a brief in­ter­view when I ask how she feels about the pres­id­ent’s ap­par­ent slow-footed re­sponse to the VA scan­dal and Ebola. It’s more a care­fully worded slap-on-the wrist than sear­ing in­dict­ment, but this close to Elec­tion Day, with a lib­er­al base to mo­tiv­ate, it counts as real cri­ti­cism.

Hagan’s cam­paign doesn’t pre­tend the race’s en­vir­on­ment hasn’t changed or that Obama is any­thing oth­er than a drag on the tick­et. They’re just equally con­vinced that the last­ing dam­age of their edu­ca­tion cam­paign won’t dis­sip­ate so quickly, and that the cam­paign’s new at­tack will leave a mark of its own.

The best be­ne­fit of Hagan’s fo­cus on edu­ca­tion might not be the dam­age it did in and of it­self. In­stead, it’s the lux­ury it provided the North Car­o­lina Demo­crat, who was able to save all of her TV ads on abor­tion rights and con­tra­cep­tion ac­cess un­til Oc­to­ber. While some Demo­crat­ic cam­paigns have beaten that mes­sage in­to the ground since the sum­mer, she’s kept those at­tacks fresh for the home stretch.

“Every­body’s got a plan un­til they get hit in the mouth, but it was al­ways our in­ten­tion to hold back the speak­er’s re­cord on wo­men’s is­sues un­til after we had fully defined his edu­ca­tion cuts and tax policies,” said one cam­paign strategist tied to the Hagan cam­paign. “Each of those ex­changes dam­aged his cred­ib­il­ity, mak­ing his re­cord of op­pos­ing equal pay and de­fund­ing Planned Par­ent­hood that much stronger of an in­dict­ment.”

It’s hard to re­mem­ber now, when Hagan has out­per­formed not only red-state Demo­crats like Mark Pry­or and Mary Landrieu but blue-state in­cum­bents like Mark Ud­all, that she was once seen as one of the party’s weak­est can­did­ates. She didn’t have the fam­ous last name like Pry­or or Landrieu, and her poll num­bers tumbled dur­ing the winter when Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity launched a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar TV ad blitz.

She did just about everything right since then.

“For her to win, she had to run a per­fect cam­paign,” Mills said. “And she’s run a damn near per­fect cam­paign.”

For months, polls showed Hagan with a slight lead in a three-way race that in­cluded the Liber­tari­an can­did­ate, Sean Haugh. Two re­cent sur­veys showed Tillis gain­ing ground, even hold­ing a slight lead, and one Re­pub­lic­an strategist track­ing loc­al races says he’s seen a bump in Tillis sup­port. But Demo­crats are adam­ant that Hagan’s num­bers haven’t dipped, and there’s been a not­able ab­sence of qual­ity polling in North Car­o­lina.

Re­mark­ably, both cam­paigns gen­er­ally agree about how the race has shaped up thus far: Tillis’s pop­ular­ity took a dive dur­ing the sum­mer’s le­gis­lat­ive ses­sion, Hagan’s edu­ca­tion-fo­cused mes­sage con­sumed the months of Au­gust and Septem­ber, Tillis was smart to stop re­spond­ing to those at­tacks, na­tion­al is­sues have taken hold of the con­ver­sa­tion in Oc­to­ber, and the race is very close.

They just dis­agree on one thing: Is the en­vir­on­ment or Hagan’s cam­paign go­ing to win out in the end?

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