U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and her Republican challenger Thom Tillis on Wednesday night stepped right out of the TV ads where they have slugged each other over the past three months and resumed swinging.
The hourlong debate at the UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, which was broadcast statewide and carried live to a national audience on C-SPAN, stayed within the confines of the talking points that have dominated the campaigns so far. In post-debate interviews, both candidates agreed the debate presented a clear contrast between two ideologies.
In opening remarks, Tillis wasted only seconds before tying Hagan to President Barack Obama. He launched the theme that Hagan has become part of the Washington establishment and is out of touch with North Carolinians.
The Democratic senator, in turn, portrayed Tillis as part of a state legislature that has harmed North Carolinians by cutting education and jobless benefits and not expanding Medicaid coverage, while giving tax breaks to the wealthy.
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Both personalized the issues, placing each other squarely at fault for their party’s failings, and they ratcheted up the antagonism as the debate wore on. Tillis, addressing Hagan her by her first name for most of the night, came out of the gate criticizing the senator.
“By Kay’s own standard, she has failed the people of North Carolina, and that’s why I’m running for Senate,” he said.
“I think Speaker Tillis has done such damage in North Carolina for his failed policies,” Hagan said.
Moderator Norah O’Donnell, co-anchor of “CBS This Morning,” covered a wide range of international, national and state issues in her questions to the candidates and repeatedly tried to get them to answer the questions.
Here were key points of contention.
Math: How the numbers add up in education was a main point of contention. Hagan says the Republican-led state legislature, where Tillis has been House speaker for three years, cut nearly half a billion dollars from education in the most recent state budget.
They sparred over the teacher pay raise the legislature included in its budget this year, giving an average annual raise of 7 percent but far less for those with the most experience. Tillis chided her, repeating one of his recent TV ads: “I’m proud of what we’ve done, and Kay’s math just doesn’t add up,” he said.
The math snipe triggered a retort from Hagan, who pointed out she had been a vice president at a bank and worked on budgets when she was in the legislature. “I’m actually insulted by his comment,” she said.
Tillis said Hagan’s criticism of last year’s tax overhaul in the state legislature was misplaced because some of the tax breaks were implemented when she was in the General Assembly. “Kay’s ads have gotten so negative she’s attacking herself, attacking policies she supported as a state senator,” he said.
Birth control: Asked whether businesses should be required to provide health insurance for birth control, Tillis threw a new curve into the debate by saying he thought contraception should be made more affordable and available over the counter.
He also worked in a swipe at Hagan’s campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry: “Maybe we should discuss big pharma supporting your campaign and discuss lowering the cost of contraception,” Tillis said.
He added that private business owners shouldn’t be expected to give up their religious beliefs, which he called a “bedrock principle this country was built on.”
Hagan called his answer a dodge, and said she disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, which held companies could withhold that coverage based on religious beliefs.
“When women’s best interests are on the line, I will never back down,” Hagan said, and later spoke emphatically into the camera: “Once again, women, we’re stuck holding the bill.”
International terrorism: Asked whether the U.S. should strike the Islamic State in Syria, Tillis hammered away at Obama’s recent remark that there is no current military strategy for that situation.
“How on earth can you not have a strategy for an organization that is almost 10 years old?” Tillis said. “... I think the U.S. needs to take all actions to protect all citizens.”
Hagan said there should be a military strike against ISIS, but that first the president should bring a plan to Congress and that the U.S. needs to work more with moderate rebels there.
“I believe ISIS is the most serious threat to our national security since 9/11,” Hagan said, adding the country needs to “do what needs to be done to take ISIS out.”