Six years ago, when Barack Obama rode his surge of hope and change into the White House, he did so with the help of a narrow and surprising victory in North Carolina. On Tuesday night, the Tar Heel state was at the crest of another wave.
By sending Republican Thom Tillis to the U.S. Senate shortly after 11 p.m., N.C. voters clinched a GOP majority in the U.S. Senate and capped a night in which Americans expressed their deep discontent with the president.
Now, previously purple North Carolina has a GOP-led House and Senate, along with Republicans in the governor’s mansion and both U.S. Senate seats.
It was an election in which dissatisfaction with Republicans in Raleigh was trumped, albeit narrowly, by displeasure with at least one Democrat in Washington. But Sen. Kay Hagan has more than the president to blame.
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Although Tillis quickly tied Hagan to Obama and the unpopular Obamacare, he was able to do so because the uninspiring first-term senator gave voters little with which to define her. Instead, Hagan countered that as N.C. House Speaker, Tillis was the architect of an extreme right legislative agenda, one that included tax cuts that benefited the wealthy and threatened other priorities across the state.
The fiercely negative campaign also was the most expensive in N.C. history, with more than $108 million spent by the candidates and outside groups. But as happened in races across the country, the Republican message resonated.
Still, N.C. Republicans should be careful not to take a Tillis win as an affirmation of the extreme policies he helped push through the legislature. Polls show that the GOP-led General Assembly remains very unpopular with North Carolinians, and while Republicans across the country romped, Tillis squeaked by in a state where the president’s approval ratings hover near a dismal 40 percent.
N.C. Republicans would be wise to look west to Kansas, a fiercely conservative state in which voters threatened to oust a Republican governor, Sam Brownback, for enacting policies starkly similar to what Tar Heel lawmakers are pursuing.
As for Washington, we’re not confident that the new Republican majority in the Senate will bring much change. Congress will still face a recalcitrant President Obama, and Republicans will likely not have the numbers in the Senate to overturn presidential vetoes on most, if not all, issues.
Still, there is precedent for a legislative branch controlled by one party to find common ground with a president who belongs to the other. That includes Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton working together to pass a milestone welfare-to-work law in 1996.
Now, Americans have decided again they want to give Republicans a chance to move the country forward. North Carolina, narrowly, has declared the same.