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Solving Washington gridlock is key issue in harsh Senate race

North Carolina voters in Tuesday’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race are getting few answers to a question more and more of them are asking: What would Democrat Kay Hagan or Republican Thom Tillis do to help end gridlock in Washington?

Instead, the candidates and their well-heeled allies are spending millions on TV attack ads filled with what Charlotte voter John Vaughan calls “so-called facts.”

The 30-second spots are so cartoonish and so devoid of useful information about the candidates’ records that voter Lynette Sisson, also of Charlotte, compares them to commercials hawking sugary cereal to children.

Sisson is a Democrat, and Vaughan’s a Republican. But with Election Day imminent, both are angry about how little is getting done in Washington.

“The people elected aren’t working together to do what’s right for the people they serve,” says Sisson, 64, a retired nurse. “They need to serve all the people, not just their party.”

Vaughan, 70, a retired physician, says he wants to hear more about how they’ll collaborate with senators across the aisle. But instead of talking about governing, he says, they’re dropping partisan bombs. “The only thing politicians do well now,” Vaughan says, “is get re-elected.”

Fresh polls suggest a rapidly growing portion of the electorate is so disgusted with the logjam on Capitol Hill that a Senate candidate’s willingness to work with the other party has become nearly as big an issue as the economy or health care.

A High Point University survey released Thursday found that North Carolina voters now favor – 50 percent to 44 percent – the candidate willing to compromise to get results. That finding echoes an NBC News/Marist poll last week that said “breaking the partisan gridlock in Washington to get things done” is now among the top three issues for the state’s voters, trailing only jobs and health care.

“Breaking the dysfunction in Washington ... is sure to be the wild card with just (days) to go until this year’s midterm election,” anchor Chuck Todd told “Meet the Press” viewers Sunday.

Hagan and Tillis are well aware of these and similar surveys, which find voter approval of Congress at an all-time low – less than 12 percent in North Carolina.

So each has tried to cast themselves as the real bipartisan candidate – and their opponent as rigidly partisan. Both have a history of working across the aisle on some issues. But except for a few mentions in televised debates, examples of compromise haven’t been fleshed out in the candidates’ ubiquitous TV ads.

Hagan’s most familiar TV spot seeks to establish her credentials as a practical-minded senator.

“If an idea works for middle-class families, I am all for it,” Hagan says in the ad. “The nonpartisan National Journal ranked me the most moderate senator. Not too far left, not too far right – just like North Carolina.”

Tillis’ ads cast doubt on Hagan’s bipartisan claims by tying her to President Barack Obama, whose favorability ratings in North Carolina have sunk to about 40 percent in most polls.

In one spot, Tillis says North Carolina needs a senator “who votes conscience over party” and calls Hagan “a rubber stamp” for Obama. In another, he tells viewers: “I’ve worked with both parties, but Sen. Hagan’s record is different: She voted the Obama party line 96 percent of the time.”

Senate’s ‘tribal atmosphere’

Making bipartisan pledges during a campaign is one thing. Keeping them in Washington, where partisanship rules, is quite another.

“In the U.S. Senate now, there’s a broad tribal atmosphere that makes working together (across party lines) on the bigger issues very, very difficult,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

What little bipartisanship there is, Ornstein says, tends to be expended on smaller issues. And even to pull that off, he says, a senator needs to have a style that prizes personal (versus ideological) relationships and horse-trading.

Catawba College analyst Michael Bitzer says such bargaining across party lines has proved easier for some Senate Democrats, particularly those moderates trying to hang on by winning over independents and centrist Republicans.

The irony is that the voters’ anti-incumbent mood could result in forced retirements for some of those same middle-of-the-road Democrats, perhaps leaving the Senate with fewer members willing to compromise. Now in tight re-election battles that could go either way: Hagan, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mark Begich of Alaska – all from states Obama lost to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.

“If Tillis wins, who would be left for him to reach across the aisle to work with without sending his party into a hissy fit?” Bitzer says. “If you take out Hagan and Landrieu and Pryor, who is there? Moderates are an endangered species.”

At least Hagan and these other Democrats made it to the general election without major challenges from the left in their party’s primary. In recent years, the road to the Republican nomination has gotten rockier, with the rise of the tea party and the growing influence of donors and interest groups willing to bankroll TV ads for hardline conservative challengers.

“The Republican Party has moved to the right so far,” Bitzer says, “that if you reach out and work with a Democrat, you’ll probably be hammered in the primary.”

Bridge-builder or partisan?

So how bipartisan would a Sen. Tillis be? Or a second-term Hagan?

The best gauge isn’t their sketchy TV ads or stump speeches. It’s their records.

In the second televised debate between Hagan and Tillis, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Tillis – twice – to name “one big issue where you would disagree and take on your party’s leadership.”

Tillis never came up with one, but he could have detailed a few of his high-profile forays into bipartisanship while North Carolina House speaker.

One example: He was the driving force behind a plan, supported by Democrats and Republicans, to compensate victims of the state’s long-ago eugenics program.

And even some who have criticized the hard-right turn the legislature took during Tillis’ tenure say he pushed for legislation that would have brought nonpartisan redistricting to North Carolina.

Under the plan, professional staffers rather than politicians would have drawn the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. The measure passed the House in 2011, with Tillis’ vote. He was prepared to run with it again in 2013, but it faced a likely death in the Senate, where Majority Leader Phil Berger and Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca opposed it.

The party in control of the legislature has traditionally shaped districts to benefit its candidates. That has led to noncompetitive races for those seats and little choice for voters in the general election.

Some Republicans had favored nonpartisan redistricting when the Democrats controlled the legislature, but changed their minds when their party became the majority, says Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a reform group that has championed nonpartisan redistricting.

“To Tillis’ credit, he stayed consistent,” Phillips says.

In 2007, Tillis came to the General Assembly from Mecklenburg County with the image of a moderate. And with Republicans still in the minority, “he tried very hard to work with Democrats because we had the power,” state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat, recently told the Observer. “He wanted to get things done.”

Then, in 2010, the GOP took control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century. Tillis ascended from backbencher to speaker. And from that post, he helped lead the way as Republicans passed their wish list, including tax cuts, abortion restrictions, voter ID requirements, and bills smoothing the way for fracking and a statewide vote on a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage.

Still, in plotting Tillis’ place on the Republican spectrum, Bitzer distinguishes between the pre-Senate-run Tillis and the one who earned the chance to take on Hagan this year.

“I would label him before he ran for the party nomination as a kind of classic suburban Republican in North Carolina – a social moderate and fiscal conservative,” Bitzer says.

But in the 2012 GOP Senate primary, Tillis steered right to compete with candidates favored by the tea party and by conservative Christians. During the primary, Tillis even went on record as favoring the federal government shutdown.

Since he won the nomination, Tillis has been careful not to antagonize the GOP base he’ll need on Election Day. He pointedly distanced himself from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in late September when, during a joint appearance in Greensboro, Bush spoke up for immigration reform and offered support for Common Core educational standards – both unpopular with conservatives.

Some Democratic legislative leaders have accused Tillis of playing hardball partisan politics as speaker. And Phillips of Common Cause says Raleigh has become as politically toxic as Washington.

As for which Tillis – moderate bridge-builder or conservative partisan – would show up in Washington, Bitzer is betting he’d be somewhere in the middle of the GOP caucus, to the left of Texas tea party favorite Ted Cruz and to the right of Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both of whom have backed comprehensive immigration reform.

Ornstein says his guess is that Tillis would mostly toe the Republican line.

“It would be pretty stunning to me,” Ornstein says, “if Tillis turned out to be a maverick.”

Independent or party loyalist?

Though Hagan also served in the North Carolina legislature, it’s her six-year record in Washington that has taken center stage in the Senate race.

Based on their votes, members of Congress are rated ideologically by a host of interest groups, newspapers and magazines. But most ratings include only a sampling of the roll calls cast.

“Some pick votes that may have impact; some don’t,” Bitzer says.

Tillis has tried to tie Hagan to an unpopular president by citing a survey by Congressional Quarterly that said she voted for Obama’s positions 96 percent of the time in 2013.

To get that number, CQ picked 108 votes on which the White House had a clearly stated stand. Most of the votes were on Obama nominations to executive branch posts and judgeships that required Senate confirmation. And most of those proved so noncontroversial that North Carolina’s other U.S. senator, Republican Richard Burr, voted with Obama nearly half the time. CQ put his 2013 presidential support rating at 49 percent.

And as high as 96 percent sounds, only four Democratic senators had a lower score, CQ said. The majority of Senate Democrats backed Obama’s positions 99 percent or 100 percent of the time.

Still, in assessing her record since 2009, CQ also said that Hagan “usually backs up Democratic positions on the biggest issues,” including Obama’s signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act, in 2010.

Hagan has tried to answer Tillis’ charge that she’s a pushover for Obama by touting the National Journal, which last year named her the Senate’s most moderate senator. The publication considered 291 votes on a broad range of issues. She ranked as the Senate’s 48th most liberal member and its 51st most conservative.

Hagan’s long-running ad citing the National Journal finding appears to be having an impact. A High Point University poll in September asked likely voters which positive qualities they associated with the two Senate candidates. It found that Hagan scored 10 points higher than Tillis on “willing to work with the other party.”

Hagan has also been eager in debates, if not in her appeals to black voters, to offer a declaration of independence from Obama on at least certain issues. She has said she urged the president to approve the Keystone Pipeline, voted against her party-backed budget because of steep military cuts, and opposed some trade deals sought by the White House.

Hagan also parted with Obama on a few other bills that she is not talking about during the campaign, probably because they might antagonize Democratic voters she’s counting on. She joined Republicans, for example, in opposing a measure to allow debate on the DREAM Act benefiting children of undocumented immigrants.

Finally, Hagan has flagged legislation she co-sponsored with GOP senators, including McCain. The Arizona Republican has lambasted Hagan while campaigning here for Tillis but recently told the Observer’s Washington bureau that “I think she’s done a good job.”

Catawba’s Bitzer said he and many other political scientists prefer to consult yet another ranking. It’s called the DW-Nominate Score and it plots senators on a graph that measures their stands on economic issues.

“She lands dead in the middle,” Bitzer says of Hagan. He noted that her score is well to the right of her party’s median score but to the left of that of every GOP senator’s.

Like most first-term senators, Hagan has kept a low-profile on national issues and focused on issues that directly affect North Carolina. But congressional observer Ornstein says Hagan fits the profile of someone who could forge bipartisan deals if she’s re-elected.

“She has good relationships with other senators,” Ornstein says. “Is she the most moderate senator? She’s certainly moderate. There’s a plenty big gulf between her and Tillis, but she wouldn’t fit on the left side of the spectrum.”

Maria David and Jennifer Rothacker contributed.

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