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Why Kay Hagan's Defeat in North Carolina Hurts the Most

Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Bessie Yarborough wanted to see Kay Hagan about some tennis shoes. It was two weeks before Election Day and she’d come to Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro for a campaign event for the North Carolina senator. For seven months, Yarborough, a 73-year-old African-American woman and retired substitute teacher, had been wearing out her shoes by going door-to-door for Hagan. Her reasons for doing so had less to do with Hagan than with her opponent, Thom Tillis. As the Speaker of the North Carolina State House of Representatives, Tillis had been at the front of the conservative revolution in Raleigh.

“Whenever I go and knock on doors, just about everybody I talk to, they start fussing about Tillis,” she said. In fact, Yarborough, who’d first gotten active in politics during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, predicted that African-American turnout in North Carolina would almost be as heavy in this election as it was six years ago. “They say, ‘You know I’m going to vote. C’mon, bring it on. I just want to know when to get to the polls.’”

In the end, Yarborough was right: According to early exit polls, African-Americans made up 21 percent of the vote in North Carolina, equaling their 2008 numbers. But unlike six years ago, when that turnout was enough to win the state for Obama, it wasn’t enough for Hagan, who lost to Tillis lost by almost 2 points. Even fewer white voters cast a ballot for her than they did for Obama in 2012; and her performance among 18-29 year olds was 33 percent lower than it was in 2008. On an awful night for Democrats across the country, Hagan’s defeat was among the most troubling.

That’s because Hagan had devised and executed a perfect campaign strategy to insulate herself from a national climate that was so toxic for Democrats. She’d run a hyper-local race and, in Tillis—an uncharismatic-yet-easy-to-demonize opponent—she had a perfect foil for doing so. In fact, she’d seemingly answered in the affirmative what White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer said was the fundamental question of the midterms: “[C]ould Obama voters become Democratic voters?”

So how did Tillis win? Well, first and foremost, he rode the great Republican wave. But he made some smart moves of his own. In the campaign’s final weeks, he took a kitchen-sink approach to the race, hitting Hagan with attacks on everything from Ebola and ISIS to a manufactured controversy over stimulus money that went to a company co-owned by Hagan’s husband. (It’s worth noting that the state environmental agency that called for a “legal review” of the matter—in an unsigned memo that, days before the election, was obtained by National Review—is the very same state agency that’s currently at the center of a federal grand jury probe into its relationship with the utility company that used to employ North Carolina’s Republican governor.) The attacks obviously took a toll on Hagan.

But Tillis’s most important move might have been in the race’s final days, when he went positive. After months of both candidates (and the outside groups supporting them) demonizing each other in 30-second TV spots—over 100,000 of which aired in the state—Tillis’s final ad of the race was this one which, while still tying Hagan to Obama, did so in a less slashing fashion and actually put forward an affirmative case for Tillis. As the former North Carolina Democratic strategist Thomas Mills noted shortly after the ad’s release:

In the midst of all the negativity, Tillis looks like a voice reason, criticizing the tone of the ad wars and boiling the election down to a simple choice between him and Hagan. If anything is going to cut through in these final days, this spot probably will because of the abrupt change in tone.

For a long time, it looked like the North Carolina Senate race would hinge on whether voters were more angry at Raleigh or Washington when they finally went to the polls. If it was the former, Hagan would win; if it was the latter, Tillis. Obviously, the national climate was such that it may have been impossible for any Democrat to win in North Carolina this year. But anger wasn’t the whole story, and, in the end, Tillis gave North Carolina voters just enough of a reason to vote for—rather than against—someone that it made a difference.