The Senate debate Wednesday night is unlikely to sway many North Carolina voters in a race that seems stuck in neutral, despite months of heavy TV advertising.
But Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis may have helped himself more than Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, playing the role of the aggressor and keeping the incumbent on the defensive.
“Clearly this was no ‘game changer.’ but I think you can say that Tillis shaded it,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
Hagan and Tillis repeated many of the talking points that will be familiar to those who who watched the dozens of TV ads that aired this year.
Tillis sought to tie Hagan to an unpopular president, while Hagan tried to bind Tillis to an unpopular state legislature.
But Tillis had a lower bar to meet as the challenger. He only had to prove that he could stand toe-to-toe with the U.S. senator he hopes to replace. David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said Tillis showed himself confident and well prepared – as did Hagan.
“I think Thom Tillis exceeded expectations,” McLennan said. “He came across as more confident. I think he looked like the more skilled debater.”
Tillis also was effectively able to defuse the criticism that he was the political voice for millionaires, by recounting his own modest background including a stint in a trailer park when he was first starting out, McLennan said.
As the challenger, it was up to Tillis to make the case as to why voters should replace Hagan. Taylor said he thought Tillis was more effective in tying Hagan to the Obama administration than Hagan was in defending her record.
Tillis was walking a fine line because of gender politics. Tillis has cultivated the image of a tough political scrapper as House speaker, getting into feuds with the likes of the female-dominated N.C. Association of Educators. He was also debating a woman in a culturally conservative region of the country where manners still matter and where Republicans already face a substantial gender gap with women.
He repeatedly addressed Hagan as “Kay,” although he sometimes used Sen. Hagan. Hagan meanwhile always used the more respectful “Speaker Tillis” in addressing her opponent.
Tillis also questioned her ability to do math – a gender stereotype – which led Hagan to say she was insulted and to note that she was a banking vice president and had been responsible as Senate budget chairman for passing the state budget.
There seemed to be little electricity or excitement around the Senate debate, in part because interest in the Senate contest has been modest. Both Hagan and Tillis are generic party candidates, who lack charisma and who have done little to spark enthusiasm among their respective party’s ideological bases. This has been a Senate race that has generated little water-cooler talk – or whatever the 21st-century version of the water cooler may be.
The race has drawn considerable national attention because it is close and could determine whether the Senate stays Democrat, or flips to Republican control. But it has not resulted in corresponding passion in the state.
The debate, held two months before Election Day, when people were more likely to be focused on the past Labor Day weekend and the recent opening of school rather than the fall campaign, may have also tamped down interest.
“The needle is probably not going to move at all” as a result of the debate, said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “They were basically talking past each other to their respective camps.
“They both held their own, which is what they both needed to do,” he added. “They both did not have the monumental gaffe that oftentimes starts the downhill decline. Nothing really earth-shattering. Nothing anybody really undecided would come in and say, ‘You know what, I am really convinced now. I think I am going to vote for this person.’
“I think it’s a continuation of the status quo in this evenly divided race.”