It was a North Carolina reporter’s question that may have helped change the course of the state’s critical U.S. Senate race.
Had Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan skipped a classified hearing on international threats to attend a New York fundraiser?
“There was once,” Hagan acknowledged after an Oct. 7 debate. “So yes, I did miss that one.”
Republican Thom Tillis’ campaign officials knew they’d caught a break.
“We have this,” campaign manager Jordan Shaw remembers thinking. “That was a critical point.”
Hagan’s remark became a staple of statewide TV ads. Though Democrats downplay its significance, Republicans say it helped Tillis make the race about a national issue.
“For the first time, that spotlight got turned on her time in Washington and what she did as senator, and took (the focus) off Raleigh,” said Tillis strategist Paul Shumaker.
On Wednesday, a day after Tillis unseated Hagan in a tight election, campaign officials said Hagan’s remark helped nationalize a race that for weeks had revolved around allegations that Tillis and other Republicans had cut millions from North Carolina schoolchildren.
Targeting President Barack Obama was a dynamic that echoed across the country as Republicans won enough seats to take control of the Senate by tying Democrats to an unpopular president.
“This turned out in my mind to be the classic midterm election and that is a referendum on the president,” said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer. “And when the president is sitting in the low 40s (in approval polls), he’s going to drag down members of his own party. We’ve seen it time and time again.”
Tillis acknowledged as much Wednesday when asked if the vote was more an affirmation of him or a repudiation of Hagan.
“It was largely a referendum on President Obama’s track record over the last six years,” he said. “President Obama said his policies – every single one of them – was on the ballot There were votes for me but also votes against President Obama and Sen. Hagan.”
Circumstances helped Tillis do that in late fall.
Hagan’s missed Armed Services Committee hearing focused attention on national security at a time when Islamic militants were beheading Americans and a new disease had spread from Africa to America.
“It’s that the 24-hour news cycle was all about Ebola or all about ISIS,” said Shumaker. “All of a sudden it sort of seeped into everybody’s minds.”
One Democrat close to the Hagan campaign said Tillis got lucky. “They really weren’t successful in nationalizing this race until circumstances out of their control did most of the work for them,” said the Democrat, who asked not to be named.
But in mid-October the National Republican Senatorial Committee essentially doubled down on the Tillis campaign, announcing an additional $6.5 million investment and sending a signal to allies that the race was winnable.
Within days of Hagan’s post-debate comments, Tillis’ campaign, the GOP senatorial committee and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS super PAC were running ads about national security. One showed pictures of militant Islamic fighters, including the one who beheaded two Americans.
“This had been a race that the Tillis campaign had been trying to make a referendum on Obama for months and months,” said Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson. “The Hagan campaign had done a pretty masterful job of really making this a referendum on the legislature and on education, which is why she held the lead for so long.”
As speaker of the state House, Tillis shared responsibility for controversial measures on issues such as voting, education and abortion that Hagan used to fire up her base. The financial muscle of her campaign and its allies kept the spotlight on her opponent.
Polls showed Hagan maintained a narrow edge in the race for months, including through the summer legislative session that largely kept Tillis in Raleigh, off the campaign trail.
Though later polls would show a dead heat, Hagan never trailed.
“Once we got out of session, and once we eliminated the legislative session from the narrative, and once we started mobilizing our ground game in August, we saw a steady increase week after week,” Tillis said.
Tillis’ campaign had faith in a turnout effort aided by outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which put 45 paid staffers on the ground. They knew Democrats would mobilize their supporters to vote early.
“We were prepared to take a 100,000-vote hit (deficit) in early voting and make up for that on Election Day,” Shumaker said. Hagan won early voting by about 90,000 votes.
Under the circumstances, Bitzer said, Hagan ran a good campaign.
“Based on the polling, she ran as ideal a campaign as I think any Democrat could do in this kind of environment,” he said.