What can the 2014 Hagan-Tillis US Senate race tell us about this year's contest
Published September 17, 2020
Going into 2020, we are awaiting the outcome of the Trump-Biden showdown, but we need to remind ourselves that every single House and Senate race has its own story to tell. Following last night's first debate between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, here is a brief case study of 2014 race between then Democratic Incumbent Senator Kay Hagan and Republican challenger and Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives Thom Tillis. If you skip the rest of the article, here are three takeaways that capture the tenor and substance of this race:
One, the wave giveth, and the wave taketh away.
Two, follow the money.
Three, you can call North Carolina a battleground state or a swing state or a purple state, just call it competitive and critical.
My focus here is on the Hagan-Tillis race, but I can’t resist the temptation to begin with a few preliminary similarities between the 2014 and current 2020 North Carolina Senate races. Of course, I am speaking as if 2020 is over, but I think these distinctions will remain. Both elections were labelled “toss-ups” by Larry Sabato of Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report. Both campaigns could capitalize on high presidential disapproval by tethering the incumbent, Hagan to Obama and Tillis to Trump. Both 2014 and 2020 were held during voting law confusion. And sadly, both campaigns were dealing with global health emergencies, Ebola in 2014 and Coronavirus in 2020.
National Context: 2014
You could conclude that the election of 2014 fit the political science profile of a midterm election, one where the public approval of the president and the state of the economy eclipse other factors. With rare exceptions, the party of the President loses seats in both the House and the Senate.
While candidates themselves and their campaigns win elections, House and Senate races have increasingly become nationalized. This nationalization refers both to the significance of agenda items beyond a single state and as well as to the funding of races by monies from outside of the state itself. In addition, political scientists measure the cumulative impact of elections by the number of House and Senate seats that change control. It may not surprise you that political scientists can come to no single definition of what constitutes a “wave election.” Some journalists and academics measure a wave in terms of the magnitude of seats won or lost while others use more intangible measures such as a significant shift in the electoral environment and the ideological direction of policy concerns.
Going by the numbers alone, both 2008 and 2014 could be considered wave elections. In 2008, the Democrats surged ahead of the Republicans, picking up eight Senate seats and twenty-one House seats. By the same logic, in 2014, the Republicans took control of the Senate with a gain of eight seats and increased their numbers in the House by thirteen. In the 2008 election, Kay Hagan road the wave of Obama’s presidential victory to defeat Elizabeth Dole, and Thom Tillis surfed the tide of Obama’s unpopularity to defeat Kay Hagan.
Carolina Context: 2014
You could legitimately question the adage that “all politics is local.” As I will elaborate later, consistent with the demographic trends of 2020, forty two percent of North Carolinians were non-native born. According to Carolina Demography, sixty – four percent of North Carolinians were Non-Hispanic White, followed by 21 percent African Americans, nine percent Hispanic, and three percent Asian American. As numbers of voters not born outside of the state continued to rise, so did racial and ethnic diversity. Urban areas continued to attract younger and more liberal citizens.
The Hagan v. Tillis was attracting national attention even before the spotlight on the unprecedented spending in the race. Reporters and analysts have long been characterizing NC as a swing state or a battleground state, and 2014 was no exception. While states are often labelled as red or blue and sometimes purple by national observers, North Carolinians themselves have recently questioned the state’s political identity itself. What’s the difference between a battleground state and a swing state? Journalists, more so than political scientists, use the terms interchangeably. The Old North State just hasn’t swung enough for me. I prefer “battleground.” Prior to Obama’s win in 2008, North Carolina had not voted for a Democrat at the top of the ticket since Jimmy Carter.
Several keen observers of N.C. politics looked on 2014 as a pivotal race for various reasons. Thomas Mills, of the Politics North Carolina blog, saw NC as the place where a “national Republican civil was playing out,” and Ashley Parker of the Washington Post presented NC as “increasingly purple” and a state whose “political identity is in flux.” Writing for the National Review, John Hood cast the contest in terms of “liberals” and Moral Monday advocates who viewed a Tillis defeat as one “which give the movement momentum in other states.”
You could easily characterize the 2014 race as one pitting national politics versus state politics versus no politics. While Hagan had served in the N.C. Senate, she came into the race as a sitting U.S. Senator. Tillis came into the race with state service and positions of leadership in the GOP controlled House. Haugh came into the race with pizza service in lieu of public office service.
Kay Hagan came from a family with political roots. Her uncle was Lawton Chiles, a former Senator from Florida. Her background was more traditional for a candidate, having earned a law degree from Wake Forest. Hagan served as a N.C. State Senator from 1999-2008 before defeating Elizabeth Dole in 2008 for the U.S. Senate. Hagan was burdened with a President with an 56% disapproval rating in North Carolina.
Tillis’ political career could be described as meteoric in terms of his trajectory and leadership positions. Tillis was a member of the Cornelius Board of Commissioners from 2003-2005 and was subsequently elected to the NC House of Representatives in 2006. In the House, Tillis was Minority Whip and later Speaker in 2011. The GOP primary pitted Tillis against obstetrician Dr. Greg Bannon and Reverend Mark Harris. As his opponents liked to point out, Tills was indeed the more “establishment” candidate with monies from the American Crossroads Super Pac and the Chamber of Commerce. Tillis received 45% of the vote, topping the 40% threshold to avoid a runoff election. Just as Hagan had to struggle with Obama’s disapproval numbers, Tillis had to contend with a state legislature with a 17 % approval.
Every race has one very, very long shot candidate, and this race was no exception. Running as Libertarian, Sean Haugh, was a former pizza delivery person. Lacking any prior political or civic experience or a snowball’s chance, Haugh added a bit of levity to the this overwise nasty race. One of his ads on You Tube pictured a smiling Haugh with a pint of beer, and a later campaign slogan “Get Haugh, Get High.”
The Clashes: Debates
You could dismiss the significance of the debates, but they often signal the themes of the campaign. The Hagan - Tillis debates were no exception. Political scientists don’t agree on the impact of the presidential debates on the general election. The spin and any gaffes often matter more than the debates themselves. Given this, one might be reluctant to say the debates between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis had an much influence in the election. Despite this, the debates revealed both personal and policy differences.
Curiously, there were 2.5 debates over the course of the campaign. The first debate on September 3 was predictable. While Tillis continued to tie Hagan to Obama, both candidates touted their moderate stances over their partisan ones. More important for the race as it unfolded was the performance. Tillis was characterized as “more confident and prepared.” Perhaps signaling this self-assurance, Tillis referred to Hagan as “Kay,” a gesture many regarded as condescending and sexist and one he changed in the second debate.
In the second debate of October 7, Hagan showed herself to be more prepared and forceful. She deflected Tillis’ criticisms of her absences on the Foreign Relations Committee especially when she corrected him that she was on the Armed Services Committee and not Foreign Relations Committee. In addition, she countered that Tillis had been challenged by his hometown newspaper to resign over his absences in the state legislature, ones purportedly for fundraising. In his campaign ads, Tillis repeatedly attacked Hagan over her absences. Despite Hagan’s preparation, Tillis picked up his first lead on October 9.
What is a .5 debate? The answer is a debate in which only one of the major candidates shows up. Kay Hagan did not participate in the October 21 “debate”; her campaign argued the event violated prior scheduling negotiations between the two parties which did not include a third debate. Instead of Hagan, an empty chair appeared beside Tillis, and he found himself with an hour of free airtime. At that time Hagan had a lead in the polls, and there is no evidence that she lost ground for her absence.
You could easily view the question of cash in this race as “from the outside looking in.” Roughly two thirds of the money spend in N.C. came from outside groups. If politicos know any single thing about the 2014 Senate race, they can remember the Hagan- Tillis race as the most expensive Senate race in the nation’s history. As of December 2014, the final tallies, including candidate spending and outside spending, topped $110 million dollars. More than the overall totals, the amount of spending by these outside groups topped other races nationwide. The ads, the early start, the cost of media markets and the “swing” status created the perfect storm to make the race this pricey.
The amount of money spent by the candidates themselves was relatively insignificant given the overall expenditures of the race. According to Open Secrets, Hagan raised around $25 million and Tillis raised around $11 million dollars.
Outside spending aiding Tillis came from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, Carolina Rising, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NRA Political Victory Fund. Outside spending for Hagan came primarily from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate Majority PAC, the National Education Association Advocacy Fund, Women Vote, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees People and the Patriot Majority. Campaign disclosure regulations changed after the 2010 Supreme Court case of Citizen’s United. Spending from certain outside groups who are immune from revealing their donors is often termed “dark money.” Simply put these groups do not advocate explicitly for a certain candidate but sponsor ads “against” one’s opponent According to the New York Times, these groups spent close to $13.7 million benefiting Tillis and 2.6 million spent $2.6 million benefiting Hagan. Just one example can explain this phenomenon. The watchdog group, Center for Responsive Politics, contends that “Americans for Prosperity – a 501(c )4 dark money group claimed to have spent at least $9 million on ‘issue ads’ targeted Hagan that never had to be disclosed.” This fact alone demonstrates “hiding in plain sight.”
You could say that the bottom line of this race was simply as where there is cash, there are ads, and N.C. was filled with both. The ad buys could easily be characterized as “buy early, buy often.” According to the Sunlight Foundation, these began in late October 2013. By July of 2014, groups such as Americans for Prosperity had spent close to $7 million dollars and Crossroads GPS had spent approximately $3.5 million. As the campaign season went on, the commercials grew in frequency and negativity.
Memorable Tillis campaign ads included ones such as “Empty Chair Record,” “Questions Kay Hagan Won’t Answer,” and “Conscience.” One of ads supporting Tillis was “Cocktails” where the focus was Hagan’s failure to make an Armed Services Committee meeting on ISIS because of a fundraiser. Yet another ad payed on the same theme of ISIS with a not so veiled connection to causalities and her alleged underestimation of the ISIS threat. Hagan did get answer the “absenteeism” issue by countering with Tillis’ alleged absences at the state legislature.
Hagan’s ads began as more parochial with a focus on cuts to the state’s education budget and low teacher pay. She also aggressively questioned Tillis’ support for and understanding of women’s issues. One ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took text from state newspapers to argue Tillis had “put a bull’s eye on public education.” In the same ad, a video of newspaper text that Tillis had given “extravagant tax breaks to the wealthy” was translated by audio as “breaks to yacht and private jet owners.” More than describing ads in depth is the fact checking done by various organizations. Groups such as Fact Check.org did detailed content examination of ads from both sides, and found numerous false claims about both candidates.
Astoundingly, the Center for Public Integrity classified 67% of the NCs in the race negative, more than any other state in the country. In his article “North Carolina’s State of Political Hate,” David Levinthal from the Center for Public Integrity charted the number of negative ads in the Tar Heel state which resulted in “more than one negative ad every minute from Tuesday October 24 to Monday October 20.” The “ground game” of mobilizing voters with local contact is always more difficult to measure, but what mattered in 2014 was the “air game” of saturating commercials and media buys. It is estimated that over 100,000 ads ran during this Senate campaign.
You could reduce the campaign to the excessive cash and the nasty commercials, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Polling numbers from September 6 to October 15 showed Hagan with a steady lead over Tillis, not a surprise for an incumbent. As the race closed in, the poll numbers began to tighten, and Hagan didn’t enjoy more than a 1 -2 % lead in several polls.
While Hagan had the money advantage, it was not the deciding factor in the outcome of the race. Hagan’s efforts to frame the election in terms of state issues such as education and Tillis’ record in the state legislature fell short. From the beginning, Tillis was successful in framing the election on national issues, especially as he reiterated time and time again that Hagan voted with President Obama 96% of the time.
Not surprisingly, the issue of gender and equal pay for equal work entered the race. Capitalizing on what was labelled the Republican “War on Women.” Hagan repeatedly argued that Tillis was out of touch with women’s issues. Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood were among the groups investing in the campaign. In addition to being characterized as the most expensive, and the nastiest Senate campaign, Tarini Parti wrote in a September article in Politico that “there’s not a race in the country where the gender gap is more pronounced than North Carolina.” Hagan’s campaign did not exclusively frame the issue in terms of reproductive rights and access to abortion but included issues of families and their well-being. Tillis robustly refuted any charges he was not family friendly in his policies.
Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, among others, appeared at campaign stops with Hagan. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Mitt Romney showed up for Tillis. Notable absent from Hagan’s appearances was President Obama. There was one instance later referred to as the “tarmac” moment where Senator Hagan along with Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) gathered for the customary greeting of a visiting President. President Obama was scheduled to speak at an American Legion Convention as was Hagan. The two did not share the stage, and Hagan spoke after Obama had left the gathering. Nonetheless, the friendly tarmac greeting found its way into the Republican campaign against Hagan.
The Ebola virus did escalate in October, but this was not a real political October surprise that derails a campaign. Was there a game-changing moment? Perhaps not a definitive moment, but Hagan made an admission that came back to haunt her in campaign ads against her. Close observers of the election would surely consider Hagan’s acknowledgement that she did indeed attend a fundraiser in New York and did, in fact, miss a classified Armed Services meeting as extremely damaging. This occurred after the second debate of October 8. Was this a factor in Hagan’s absence at the last “debate?” That’s difficult to assess, but it surely didn’t help.
As they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and political scientists and journalists are the best Monday morning quarterbacks in evaluating elections. This race might have been an exception. According to Roll Call, a national political publication, “it’s rare a losing campaign has no regrets. But to the last person, Democrats involved in Kay Hagan’s re-election say they would not have done anything differently.” In the same article Ward Baker, the Political Director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, commented that “Bombs could be going off and Thom Tillis is the coolest customer I’ve ever met.”
You could reasonably boil down the outcome of the race to a referendum on the Obama’s presidency, but would discount the ferocity of both campaigns and candidates. In the end, Hagan’s attempt to frame the race in terms of “N.C. First” couldn’t beat Tillis’ framing the race with national issues such as ISIS and Obama.
As predicted, the contest was highly competitive and close. It is estimated that over 100.000 ads ran in the Hagan – Tillis race alone. Polling numbers fluctuated during the campaign, but Tillis didn’t begin to sneak past Hagan in some polls until the final weeks of the campaign. The final polls showed Hagan holding only a slight lead over Tillis. Democrats did lead in early voting numbers, but that wasn’t enough to deliver Hagan a victory. Voter turnout was around 44%, roughly the same percentage as the 2010 midterm. The final tally supported the trend of the race. According to the New York Times final totals, Tillis votes of 1,413,269 beat Hagan’s votes of 1,364,758. Haugh finished with 108,183 votes. Tillis’ margin of victory of about 1.6 % wasn’t all that shocking in the end. Nevertheless, The Tillis victory over Hagan made national headlines as a bombshell.
Exit polls held only a few surprises. According to the final exit poll numbers from the New York Times, Hagan won the votes of African American voters, younger and more urban voters, and more educated voters. Tillis won the older, evangelical, rural, and white male vote. The gender breakdown was probably closer than Hagan expected with female voters preferring Hagan to Tillis by a 12 % margin. Those identifying as Independent or unaffiliated split their vote with 42% for Hagan and 49% for Tillis. Despite Hagan’s framing of the campaign, Tillis bested Hagan among native born North Carolinians by a 12-point margin.
As much drama surrounded the campaign, the real nail biter was election night. The GOP need to flip 6 seats to win control of the Senate, and when the Tillis victory was announced, that sealed the deal. The Associated Press called the race at 11:25 in the evening. The Republicans had won control of the Senate.
Looking at the 2020 Tillis – Cunningham election to date, President Trump is facing a 55.7% disapproval rating. Cal Cunningham raised over $7 million in the second quarter, already topping the $4.8 million record by Hagan in her third quarter. As of July 24, the Marist College Poll shows Cal Cunningham with a 9-point advantage over Thom Tillis. Subsequent polls have found the race tightening, as evident in the Real Clear Politics poll average going from a nearly 10 point Cunningham advantage on July 30 to a 3-4 point advantage for the Democrat now.
Then again, these are campaigns in unprecedented times, and now is not the time to place your bets.
Dr. Susan Roberts is a professor of political science at Davidson College. She tweets at @profsuroberts.