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North Carolina Senate seat may be price of GOP success

The GOP’s statehouse policy gains on abortion, voting, and taxes have come with a steep political price in the Senate race.

RALEIGH, North Carolina -- For Republicans in North Carolina, the last two years have been a golden age.

When Pat McCrory was elected governor here in 2012, the GOP assumed total control of state government for the first time in more than a century. They put it to use quickly, enacting a series of tax cuts, blocking the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, passing new anti-abortion laws, and imposing an array of new restrictions on voting. 

“When my grandmother was alive, she wouldn’t have let a Republican in the house,” David Goodson, 69, a Charlotte-area Republican voter recalled. “Things really changed in a positive direction.”

But the GOP’s sweeping gains could come with a steep political price: the chance to unseat Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in November. 

Hagan, who is facing a challenge from Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis, has proven surprisingly resilient in a difficult Democratic year and political observers of all stripes say it has a lot to do with the state government’s swerve to the right. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee announced on Monday it would spend another $6 million on television advertising in the campaign's final three weeks to back up $3 million already in place for Tillis. The GOP ad buy will go up against $9.1 million worth of ad time the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee booked from August through November. 

North Carolina, which went narrowly for President Obama in 2008 and then narrowly for Mitt Romney in 2012, is a true swing state whose demographics are trending blue. As a result, the state government's right turn has produced a backlash for Hagan to exploit. Since McCrory isn't on the ballot this year and the state legislature's Republican majority is insulated from serious threats thanks to gerrymandering, there’s nowhere for that Democratic energy to go except the Senate race. 

Tillis, like most Republican candidates this year, has been running on a promise to forcefully push back against Obama. In two recent debates, he used his opening and closing statements to tie Hagan's voting record to the White House. Recently Tillis has shifted the race to national security issues, arguing that Obama has offered weak responses to ISIS and Ebola and that Hagan bears part of the blame. 

“I’m determined to make it clear that the president last week said all of his policies, every single one of them, are on the ballot in November,” Tillis told reporters. “I’m determined to make it clear that people know that Senator Hagan has voted with Obama 96% of the time.”

RELATED: National security fears dominate North Carolina debate

Hagan, however, has managed to open up a small lead in recent polls by hammering Tillis just as relentlessly for his work in the state Legislature.

“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 in a debate.

Hagan has frequently derided Tillis as "divisive," trying to draw a line between partisan trench warfare in Washington and in Raleigh even though she is the Washington incumbent in the race. Besides attacking Tillis over right-leaning legislation, her campaign has seized on remarks he made in 2012 in which he contrasted North Carolina's growing black and Hispanic electorate with the state's "traditional population" of voters.

In May, Tillis walked back a comment he'd made saying Republicans need to "divide and conquer the people who are on assistance." He professed empathy for people who receive disability assistance while criticizing those who "choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government." 

Obama is not popular in North Carolina, nor is Hagan particularly well liked by voters. The most recent survey by NBC News/Marist, for example, found just 42% of likely voters had a favorable impression of Hagan versus 48% who had an unfavorable one – dangerous numbers for any incumbent. But the state legislature’s unpopularity has dragged Tillis even lower: 36% favorable versus 47% unfavorable. He trailed by four points in their election match-up.

Dean Debnam, founder of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling and a prominent donor to state progressive causes, attributed the long decline in Tillis’ standing to his connection to the legislature. One PPP poll last month pegged the General Assembly’s approval rating at 19%.  

“It’s added something like 30 points to his negatives while Hagan’s numbers have barely moved at all,” Debnam said. 

Republicans agree the state-based attacks are the prime source of damage.

“She painted Tillis as a tea partier, drove up his negatives with swing voters and all of a sudden (voters) have a Hobson’s choice,” Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist in the state, told msnbc. “If they had a Republican they liked, they’d probably fall right in place.”

While Hagan has tried to use the state government to scare swing voters away from Tillis, it’s been equally important in riling up Democrats in a state where turnout plummeted from 2008 to 2010. 

The various bills passed by the Legislature have given Democrats an opportunity to activate Obama’s voting coalition of minorities, women, young voters, and urban professionals without any mention of the president himself. Women protested outside both debates trying to draw attention to new abortion measures in the state, which included a series of regulations on clinics that Republicans attached to a motorcycle safety bill at the last minute. African-American voters are upset with a new voting law that's among the most restrictive in the country, as are college activists who won’t be allowed to use their campus ID to vote under the new law.

“The Democrats care way more about the legislature than they do about the Senate race,” John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, told msnbc. “Sure, they’re trying to re-elect Kay Hagan, but the major reason is that they want to beat Thom Tillis as opposed to being greatly enamored with Hagan or frankly caring whether Democrats have 50 seats or 49.”

Thousands have attended ongoing “Moral Monday” protests against the GOP’s agenda. The movement, led by state NAACP president Rev. William Barber, has protested a range of GOP-imposed policies, from education cuts to taxes to voting laws.

Ronie Bellamy, on break from his restaurant job in downtown Wlimington, told msnbc he was fired up after attending a local Moral Monday protest and had recently registered to vote. He plans to support Hagan.

“The things that Tillis did – they’re cutting everything,” he said.

Bellamy and other Wilmington residents said they were particularly upset with the legislature’s decision to end a tax credit designed to attract film studios, some of which have produced television shows and movies in the city. Hagan raised the issue in the debates, accusing Tillis of sending the jobs to other states.

Eremaine Murphy, an African-American retiree, chimed in from a bench nearby about the voting restrictions. “It’s crazy," she said.

Republicans, Murphy added, are "just trying to hold on.”

The voting law may motivate Democrats to get to the polls, but activists also fear it will disproportionately affect minorities and young voters who tend to vote for Democrats. After a Supreme Court decision blocking a lower court’s hold on the law last week, voters now face a new ban on same-day voter registration and out-of-precinct provisional votes. Hagan closed the debate on Thursday by reminding voters they had only one day before the new deadline to register. 

There’s still plenty of room for Tillis to close the gap, but the relentlessly negative campaign from both sides has introduced an element of unpredictability. And a significant number of voters in polls, around 5% on average, are leaning towards libertarian candidate Sean Haugh, who appeared in Thursday’s debate but has barely spent any money campaigning.

Voters like Indian Trail resident John Crider, 74, say disgust with both major candidates has pushed them to consider their options. 

Crider normally votes Republican, but he and his wife Phyllis, 71, told msnbc they were strongly considering Haugh. Mr. Crider is no fan of Obama or Hagan, but the education cuts in particular had left them both disillusioned with Tillis as well.

“I can’t stand either one,” Mr. Crider said.

“Their campaigns are pathetic,” Mrs. Crider added.

A major question for the final stretch is whether voters who are now telling pollsters they’ll support Haugh get cold feet and ultimately back one of the two major candidates rather than cast a protest vote.  

In the meantime, Republicans are holding out hope that discontent with Obama will carry the day when voters make their final gut check. 

“People do not check the box for federal elections based on state issues,” Larry Shaheen, a Republican strategist, told msnbc. “It just does not happen.”