Less than half of North Carolina’s then 6 million registered voters cast ballots in the Senate race in 2010. Just a sliver of that number watched the debate between U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and state House Speaker Thom Tillis on TV Wednesday night.
But for the candidates it’s the day-after spin that really matters. And on Thursday, the political chatter filled the atmosphere with who won and who lost, and who said something that can be used against them between now and Nov. 4. Much of the talk focused on how women’s issues played out – a key thread for both parties.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said it’s the rebound from the debate that influences elections.
“A lot of the battle is fought afterward, in the interpretation – not least because not everybody watches the debate,” Taylor said. “You get these full-court presses in social media and press releases to try to win. The battle of the debate is over, now they try to win the battle over the interpretation of the debate’s meaning.”
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The first debate between Hagan and Tillis drew an audience of more than 300,000 households, not counting the Wilmington and Asheville areas, which do not report overnight ratings. It was carried live by more than 30 television and radio stations.
In addition, C-SPAN carried it live nationwide, and reported nearly 2,000 website views, according to the N.C. Association of Broadcasters Educational Foundation, which sponsored the debate.
The preliminary audience count was on a par with the two 2012 debates, which drew nearly 420,000 and 365,000 for all of the state’s markets, the associations reported.
For political insiders, unsurprisingly, tweets during the debate spiked to an estimated 8,000 during the one-hour debate. Twitter traffic on the #NCSEN hashtag plunged immediately afterward.
By midday Thursday in downtown Raleigh, the debate was old news. An unscientific spot check turned up few people who watched it. One man who did watch said it wasn’t helpful.
“I’m still on the fence,” said Gary Hux of Durham. “Both of them actually slung enough mud at each other and brought up the negatives more than the positives. It would be really nice and refreshing if they talked more about all the positives.”
Tillis was criticized by some for what they called a condescending attitude toward Hagan, using her first name rather than calling her Sen. Hagan, and saying her “math” was poor – a gender stereotype in some minds.
Tillis’ backers disputed that his tone was sexist.
“He and I both knew Kay when she was in the legislature,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican who attended the debate. “I’ve always called him Thom and her Kay, and she’s always called me Ruth and, to my knowledge, she’s always called him Thom. I’m not sure why that’s viewed as condescending.”
Hagan referred to Tillis as Speaker Tillis throughout the debate – though that may have been to tie him to the General Assembly.
Jessica Wood, a Republican media consultant in Raleigh, said there was a more substantial issue to argue about than how Tillis addressed Hagan.
“What I do find condescending, as a female and lifelong North Carolinian, is the Democrats’ apparent belief that what matters most to women in this state is who will pay for their contraception,” Wood said. “That is absurd, and I thought Sen. Hagan did herself a disservice last night by choosing that issue as her question to ask of Speaker Tillis.”
That issue emerged when moderator Norah O’Donnell asked Tillis if he thought businesses should be required to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives regardless of their owners’ religious beliefs. Tillis unexpectedly replied that he thought oral contraceptives should be cheaper and available over the counter, instead of by prescription. He later noted the American College of Obsetricians and Gynecologists has endorsed the idea.
The Washington Post and The Hill reported Thursday that Tillis is the fourth GOP senatorial candidate to come out in favor of over-the-counter birth control pills. Republicans are challenging the Democrats’ presumed advantage on women’s issues.
Planned Parenthood in North Carolina is using his remarks to bolster support for Hagan. Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund sent out an email Thursday saying the over-the-counter strategy is aimed at taking away coverage for contraceptives and to shift the cost to women. Tillis’ effort in the General Assembly to defund Planned Parenthood shows his real motive, Reed said.
The post-debate spin apparatus will whirl into action again in about a month, after the second televised debate sponsored by the broadcasters association on Oct. 7.