Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis grew testy as they sparred over national security Thursday night in the final debate of a race that could determine control of the Senate.
Tillis was armed with new ammunition after Hagan acknowledged this week that she missed a Senate hearing on terrorism to attend a Manhattan fundraiser.
In their third encounter the two also returned to familiar themes, with Tillis seeking to link his opponent to President Barack Obama and Hagan blaming the House speaker for controversial state policies.
The debate at Wilmington’s WECT-TV marked the first appearance by Libertarian Party candidate Sean Haugh, who had said he hoped his presence would encourage his rivals to “play nice.” Instead he stood between them as they lobbed charges.
Moderator Jon Evans started by addressing what he called “the elephant in the room”: Tillis’ charge that Hagan has missed meetings of the Senate Armed Services Committee that addressed the growing threat of the group known as ISIS. Hagan had acknowledged that she’d missed a February hearing for the fundraiser.
“The highest priority has to be when you have the threat from ISIS, you show up for work,” Tillis said. “Apparently Sen. Hagan thinks a cocktail fundraiser hosted on Park Avenue by a Wall Street executive is a better priority than doing her job.”
The fundraiser also was the subject of a new TV ad Tillis released Thursday that includes pictures of Hagan, Obama and ISIS fighters. “While Obama did nothing,” a narrator says, “Hagan did cocktails.”
Hagan criticized Tillis for not saying what he’d do to stamp out the threat from the terrorist group ISIS. She jabbed him for missing several legislative days this summer to attend fundraisers of his own.
“Speaker Tillis is spineless,” she said. “(He) will not say one thing he will do to stop the threat of ISIS.”
“Sen. Hagan’s sticking to her talking points,” Tillis replied. “ ‘Spineless’ – let’s talk shameless.”
“Sen. Hagan is asking the speaker of the House to come up with a strategy before she does,” he added later.
Haugh said “airstrikes with no ground support is a recipe for failure.” He decried what he called the “perpetual war” in which the U.S. has seemed to be involved. He said the U.S. should “stop trying to bomb our problems out of existence.”
As a senator, he said he would vote to “stop all wars” and “stop spending money we don’t have.”
The debate came as a new poll appeared to show the race tightening. A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Wednesday showed Hagan with a slim 47 percent to 45 percent edge, well within the 4.4-point margin of sampling error. Haugh pulled 4 percent support.
After months of being outspent by Hagan and her allies, Tillis and his supporters dominated the airwaves over the last two weeks of September, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of advertising estimates by Kantar Media/CMAG.
No Senate race in the country has seen as much spending – or as much advertising. North Carolinians have been bombarded with more than 71,700 TV ads, the center reported Thursday.
As she has throughout the campaign, Hagan said Tillis’ legislative policies have hurt the state by “cutting education, killing the equal pay bill, making college more expensive and turning away health care for 500,000 North Carolinians.”
Tillis, meanwhile, said Hagan “rubber-stamped” everything the president has supported. “If President Obama likes it, Sen. Hagan likes it,” he said.
The candidates also debated:
. Hagan called Republican charges that her family’s use of federal stimulus funds that she’d voted for “a baseless attack.” This week the state GOP filed an ethics complaint charging that Hagan’s husband improperly benefited from the 2009 stimulus by getting $390,000 in grants and tax credits.
“I have no role in my husband’s business,” Hagan said.
Hagan accused Tillis of personally benefiting from a green energy tax credit program he supported that benefited a bank in which he holds stock.
Haugh said such controversies were a product of a Washington environment that gives too much clout to special interests.
. Hagan blasted Tillis for “wasting your taxpayer dollars” by continuing to defend North Carolina’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger announced Thursday that they were hiring outside counsel to defend the law, even after the U.S. Supreme Court appears to have opened the door to gay marriage.
“I’m doing my job,” Tillis said.
Haugh called the state’s amendment “repugnant.”
“I am for gay marriage,” he said. “If you want to get married, mazel tov.”
. Tillis said he favors offshore oil and gas drilling as a way to help make America an “energy superpower.” He also criticized what he called the regulatory overreach of the Environmental Protection Agency, which he said would drive up Americans’ energy costs.
Hagan said she has an “all of the above” energy policy, supporting further exploration as well as renewables. She said Tillis supported legislation that makes it against the law to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
He said that although Hagan had written Obama urging him to open the Keystone pipeline, “We don’t need a pen pal, we need a senator.”
. Hagan repeated her support for a $10.10 minimum wage. She accused Tillis of favoring tax cuts for the rich over helping low-income workers.
Tillis said a minimum wage represents more government regulation of the economy and pointed to a report by the Congressional Budget Office that a higher minimum wage would cost jobs. “Sen. Hagan must have missed a briefing,” he said.
Haugh, who delivers pizzas for a living, said he lives with the minimum wage. He said workers wouldn’t need more if the federal government reduced spending and taxes.
Polls suggest Haugh could be a spoiler in a tight race. Conventional wisdom has been that he would take votes from Tillis. But an Elon University survey suggested just the opposite.
The online survey gave 763 voters a choice of a ballot with all three candidates and one with just Hagan and Tillis. It found that Haugh would siphon twice as many votes from Hagan as from Tillis.
Tillis, the survey directors concluded, “should be thankful that Haugh is on the ballot.”