3 questions we’d like to ask the candidates

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis face off at 7 tonight in the first debate of their too-close-to-call U.S. Senate showdown. It’s a rare chance for voters to hear more than they can get from 30-second TV ads. We figure most voters have already made up their minds between the Democrat Hagan and the Republican Tillis. But with only two other debates expected (on Oct. 7 and 9), the vital undecided voters should use tonight to get nudged off the fence. The Observer editorial board would like to see three questions for Hagan and three for Tillis that we think would produce the most revealing answers for centrist voters.

Kay Hagan

1) You voted for Obamacare. Would you vote for the same bill again? What is the biggest aspect of Obamacare that needs to be fixed?

• Tillis, like Republicans around the country, is making his opponent’s support for Obamacare the centerpiece of his campaign. Hagan has defended her vote even while trying to portray Tillis as supporting the legislation – as if Hagan thought that was a bad thing. With Republicans potentially on the cusp of controlling both houses of Congress, changes to the bill are a real option, and Hagan could make clear exactly where she stands on those changes, while clarifying why she said that under Obamacare voters could keep their old insurance.

2) Your opponents’ ads trumpet that you vote with President Obama 96 percent of the time, but you run ads depicting yourself as the most moderate senator in America, “not too far left, not too far right.” How can those both be true?

• For many centrist voters, this is the key question: Is Hagan moderate or a big Obama backer? North Carolina may be the nation’s most purple state. Hagan knows it and so is touting her moderate bona fides. But fact checkers have shown that the Obama/96 percent claim is basically true.

3) Give us two examples of when you have been an early leader tackling a controversial issue.

• Hagan tends to be cautious and measured, giving the appearance that she is calculating the political ramifications of every word she utters. Undecided voters want to know that she has a compass and driving principles that undergird her actions.

Thom Tillis

1) You pushed hard for Amendment One, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Since then, just about every court and every state has gone in the other direction. Do you feel good about your support for Amendment One?

• Tillis admitted at the time that the amendment would likely be overturned within a generation. He was off by almost a generation. A majority of Americans now realize that discrimination is legally indefensible. Has Tillis had second thoughts?

2) You are critical of Sen. Hagan for voting with President Obama 96 percent of the time. How often do you think you would vote with a Republican president, and would you be a force to change the gridlock that paralyzes Washington?

• Tillis is at risk with voters who see him as part of the pack standing in the way of compromise. If Tillis treasures bipartisanship, now would be a good time to articulate that, and to give examples of how he has practiced it while leading the state House.

3) When asked at an April debate co-sponsored by the Observer which federal department you would actively campaign to eliminate, you said you’d start by questioning whether the Department of Education needs to exist. Do you think we would be better off without a Department of Education?

• Moderate voters care about public education. Tillis has established a record as House speaker that is unfriendly to public schools. He can quibble with his precise wording at the April debate, but abolishing the Department of Education is not likely to be a winning approach with a majority of voters.