WILSON, N.C. — Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan has been in sticky situations before. She spent summers working on her grandparents’ North Carolina tobacco farm, pulling apart tobacco leaves and handing them down the line — hot, gummy work harvesting a crop that’s critical to the state’s agriculture industry and heritage.
“I loved it,” she said as she toured Sharp Farms, which grows tobacco and sweet potatoes, on a cool fall afternoon two weeks before Election Day. That’s when voters will decide whether to send the first-term Democratic senator back to Washington or replace her with Republican Thom Tillis. But North Carolina voters aren’t hearing much about Hagan’s roots, or about her background as part of a military family, or really anything that’s positive — or personal — about her at all.
Instead, her race against Tillis, the speaker of the state house, is a negative, talking-point-filled, all-out air war that reflects the national political debate more than almost any other Senate race this year. It’s all here: Discontent with the president, unhappiness with conservative state governance, changing demographics, a flood of outside cash and, of late, the general anxiety that’s pervaded a nation suddenly grappling with threats from the Islamic State, Ebola and terrorism.
“We need to make sure that we have people at the top that are getting the situation under control and making Americans feel like they’re not making up the plays as they go,” Tillis told msnbc in an interview this week.
Up until now, the race has been largely about whether voters were unhappier with a conservative state government in Raleigh that’s cut education and limited early voting, or with President Obama’s administration in Washington. Hagan has held a slim lead in polls, and until recently, she seemed to be in a safer position than other vulnerable Senate Democrats. In the final weeks, Tillis has pivoted to an argument about safety and security, and Republicans insist it’s changing the landscape of the race.
“Scare tactics,” Hagan declared.
Earlier this month, Tillis said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got an Ebola outbreak, we have bad actors that can come across the border. We need to seal the border and secure it.”
But this week, he left the word “Ebola” out of his standard campaign speech. “I don’t necessarily expect a mass outbreak in the United States,” he said Tuesday night. Instead, both he and Hagan were back to their main focus: Attacking each other in broad strokes.
“The only thing that Sen. Hagan has shown independence of is the citizens of North Carolina since she became a U.S. senator,” Tillis said Wednesday during a campaign stop with Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2012.
“I think all of us have seen some of the most disastrous things taking place in North Carolina since Thom Tillis has been speaker of the house,” Hagan said during a stop at a barbecue joint in eastern North Carolina on Tuesday.
Both Tillis and Hagan are struggling to answer questions that also define their political parties nationally. For Hagan, it’s Obama. She struggled to say whether the president has been a strong leader, initially saying he “has a lot on his plate” before eventually concluding that, “no, certainly there are issues that I certainly think — um, no.”
For Tillis, it’s the party’s conservative orthodoxy, particularly on issues like Medicare and Social Security. Democrats have worked to make Medicare an issue in the campaign, claiming that Ryan’s budget would “end Medicare as we know it” and tying Tillis to the plan.
A day before he appeared with Ryan, Tillis struggled to explain if he disagreed with any portions of the Wisconsin congressman’s controversial budget plan.
“I don’t wholeheartedly support anything until I’ve dug into the details,” he said when asked if he had any reservations about the outline. Pressed on whether he had yet to dig into the details of the Ryan budget, Tillis said, “Well I have looked at, I have looked at a lot of things.”
He added: “What Congressman Ryan is trying to do is make sure that we can fulfill the promises that we’ve made.”
And even Ryan, in an appearance at Wingate University, campaigned on Medicare, telling students that Hagan had “raided” and “robbed” the program by voting for the health care law.
For both parties, North Carolina will be a test of turnout machinery. On the Republican side, the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity is testing its own organizing prowess, opening offices across the state and putting what’s becoming an outsourced GOP data operation to the test.
For Democrats, it’s about making sure the Obama coalition that backed the president in 2008 shows up at the polls. That means motivating African-American voters — a tricky task for Hagan, who has to convince them it’s worth showing up for her while still declaring independence from a president who black voters overwhelmingly still support.
To do it, she’s making a point to discuss new voting restrictions during her campaign speeches — and, in an interview, invoking John Lewis’ fight for voting rights.
“Thom Tillis put barriers up to the ballot box in 2014. “I was with John Lewis recently, and I actually went to Alabama with John a year ago and walked the Pettus Bridge where he was beaten to a pulp to get the right — that constitutional right — to vote,” Hagan said. “And when I see what happened in those situations, I mean, why in the world would we respect somebody who puts these barriers up?”
A diverse crowd came to see Hagan speak at Wilber’s, a famous eastern North Carolina barbecue joint. Ed Cromartie, one of the county commissioners, told msnbc that a vote for Hagan was a vote to back up Obama. “It has to be,” he said.
Another African-American supporter told Hagan: “We’ve got your back.”