NORTH CAROLINA - Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis will kick off a pair of debates on Tuesday night in one of the most closely fought races of this year's midterm election season.
Hagan has led in recent polling, but only narrowly. An NBC News/Marist poll last week put her up 44-40 among likely voters, in line with an array of other independent surveys showing her with a modest single-digit lead.
Tillis is the speaker of the state house of representatives, where he presided over an ambitious conservative agenda after Republicans took complete control of the state government in 2012. His record has been under the spotlight in the race, especially budget cuts to education, and the issue is sure to figure prominently in their debates.
Other topics that the campaigns have fought over recently include foreign policy, where Tillis has run ads accusing Hagan and President Obama of being soft on ISIS, and voting rights, a major issue since Republican legislators passed a law limiting early voting and requiring a photo ID to cast a ballot.
The debate may also touch on ethics. The state Republican and Democratic parties each filed dueling ethics complaints on Tuesday, with Republicans asking for an investigation into whether a company co-owned by Hagan’s husband benefited improperly from stimulus money and Democrats asking for an investigation into whether Tillis benefited improperly when the legislature directed stimulus money towards a tax program that included a bank he owns stock in. Both candidates have denied any wrongdoing.
North Carolina is one of four states Mitt Romney won in 2012 where Democratic incumbents are mounting difficult re-election campaigns this year. Republicans have improved their position in the other three, Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana, over the last month, but Hagan has proven the most resilient Democratic target of the bunch.
Part of this could be thanks to impressive spending from her campaign and Democratic allies: outside groups may spend tens of millions of dollars in the final stretch of the race to hold her seat, according to a report in Politico.
Tuesday night’s debate in Research Triangle Park is sponsored by the N.C. Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation and moderated by ABC host George Stephanopolous. A second debate on Thursday in Wilmington is sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear and local station WECT.
There are four other Senate debates taking place Tuesday. In Georgia, Republican David Perdue goes up against Democrat Michelle Nunn. In Virginia, Chuck Todd will be hosting the debate between Democratic Senator Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie. Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito squares off against Democratic candidate Natalie Tennant in West Virginia -- the state will get its first female senator in history. And in Colorado, Democratic Senator Mark Udall and Republican Representative Cory Gardner will debate again.