DURHAM, North Carolina -- Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis engaged in a tug of war in their meeting on Tuesday, with Tillis constantly trying to tie Hagan to President Obama and Hagan refocusing the debate on North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state legislature.
“Last week, President Obama said every one of his policies, every single one, was on the ballot in November,” Tillis said in his opening remarks. “Kay Hagan voted with President Obama 96% of the time.”
Tillis went on to reference the “96% of the time” statistic more than a half-dozen times. In his closing remarks, he told the audience that “a vote for Senator Hagan is a vote for President Obama’s failed policies.”
Hagan was equally as aggressive in going after Tillis’ state record, especially on education, where recent budgets have included cuts to teacher pay and higher education.
“He’s gutted education, killed an equal pay bill, made college more expensive, and said no to health care for 500,000 North Carolinians, and folks he is campaigning on a promise to take that destructive agenda to Washington,” Hagan said. She repeated that Tillis “gutted education” three more times before the debate was over.
Both candidates tried to break out of the frame the other set for them. Pushing back against Hagan’s attacks, Tillis noted that more recent state budgets had raised teacher pay and restored some education spending. Hagan, rebutting the claim she was a “rubber stamp” for Obama, cited a National Journal analysis ranking her as the most moderate member of the Senate and said she disagreed with the president by supporting approval for the Keystone pipeline and opposing new executive orders on immigration, White House-backed trade deals, and cuts to the military.
In one pointed exchange, George Stephanopolous, who moderated the debate asked Tillis to name an area where he disagreed with Republican leaders in Congress.
He responded at first by accusing the Senate of ignoring bills passed by the Republican House.
“She’s talking about bipartisan leadership, but let’s talk about regulatory reform, lets talk about repealing Obamacare, lets talk about putting the EPA back into check instead of destroying jobs,” he said.
After Stephanapolous pressed him a second time to name an area of disagreement, Tillis said it was “hard to say” whether he disagreed with Senate Republican leaders because many of the House’s bills had not been brought up in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"It’s hard to figure out where the differences will be because they’re not debating, there’s no such thing as a regular order,” he said.
“You want to ask him your question again?” Hagan said to Stephanopoulos afterwards.
Tillis later said he disagreed with sequestration cuts that passed with the support of GOP leadership.
The debate also featured a pointed exchange over ISIS, where Tillis has run ads accusing Hagan and Obama of not taking action sooner to combat the threat. He noted that Hagan had missed a number of Armed Services hearings during her tenure in the Senate.
“They have failed the American people and they’ve made our nation and the world less safe and less secure,” Tillis said. “They’re coming up with a strategy to solve a problem that they largely created.”
Hagan countered that she had been briefed on the issue thoroughly, but admitted after the debate that she had missed one of the hearings to attend a fundraiser after it was postponed by votes earlier in the day.
During the debate, she said she supported arming moderate Syrian rebels early on to help prevent the rise of ISIS, a step she noted that Tillis has said he is unsure he supports.
“He is waffling on these issues. He is spineless on what he would do to take ISIS out. I have been clear, I have been decisive, but I think we need to hear what Speaker Tillis would do,” she said.
Several recent polls have shown Hagan holding onto a small lead over Tillis in the race, which is one of four key pickup opportunities for Republicans this year featuring a Democratic incumbent in a state that Mitt Romney won in 2012.