The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama visit adds heat to contentious and crucial North Carolina Senate race

President Obama visits Charlotte on Aug. 26 and is greeted by both North Carolina senators — Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr. though a selective crop might find its way into election ads by Hagan opponent. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

About the only thing that’s certain about North Carolina’s crucial Senate race is that it’s close. Polls show a tight contest, with Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and her Republican opponent Thom Tillis exchanging slim leads. It’s not even clear what the November midterm will be about.

Is it a nationalized election, with Hagan tied to a president with low approval numbers? Will Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House, be weighed down with dissatisfaction over a sometimes dysfunctional state legislature? Will the economy be the ruling issue or will education, health care and the environment, major North Carolina concerns, rise in importance? What role will social issues — abortion and same-sex marriage — play in turning out the base in both parties?

If this past week was an indication, the answer is maybe – or perhaps, all of the above.

Hagan has her own story to tell, which she did briefly at the American Legion convention in Charlotte on Tuesday in front of an audience of veterans. North Carolina, which she calls the nation’s most military friendly state, is home to 770,000 veterans and 116,000 active-duty troops, a major voting bloc.

Hagan, a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, has familial military connections: a Vietnam veteran husband, a father-in-law who was a Marine general, a brother and father with Navy service and nephews who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She has worked across party lines with North Carolina’s Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who preceded her as convention speaker, on issues to benefit the military, including efforts, she said, “to bring justice to the Marines who were affected by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.” She touted her months-long work — including direct contact with and chiding of the president — to reduce wait times at the VA by facilitating leases in Fayetteville and Jacksonville. She criticized the Obama administration, which she said “has a long road ahead to restore the faith and trust of our veterans.”

Hagan also took a swipe at Tillis, though not by name, when she said the state legislature made it easier “for predatory lenders to take advantage of hard-working military families.”

The Tillis campaign said in a statement that Kay Hagan and President Obama have broken their promises to our veterans, allowing the issues plaguing the VA to get significantly worse under their watch. Hagan has rubber-stamped President Obama’s reckless policies, which have weakened us at home and emboldened our enemies abroad, creating one crisis after another.

That followed a pattern, as Tillis seldom fails to mention Obama when the subject is Hagan, who followed the nation’s commander in chief on the American Legion program on Tuesday. (A respectful but not overly enthusiastic crowd took a wait-and see attitude on the VA reforms the president announced.) Before the day was out, the Tillis campaign had sent out a photo of Hagan’s cordial tarmac greeting with the president, though it didn’t mention that Republican Burr was there as well.

Tillis would no doubt be happy with the reaction of Curtis Leary, 78, of Cary, N.C., a Coast Guard veteran who said Obama’s speech was “good” before he sarcastically gave credit not to the president but to “the guy who wrote it.” He said he was disappointed in Hagan’s vote for the Affordable Care Act, and would vote for Tillis.

But Brenda Galbreath, a member of the American Legion Auxiliary, who volunteers with the VA medical center in Fayetteville, had a different view. Galbreath, whose father served in Korea and Vietnam, said she was appreciative of what the president said. “It was an honor to have him here,” she said. “Hagan’s record with veterans is good; Tillis is pandering.”

On Wednesday, social issues were in the spotlight at the Charlotte stop for a “Summer of Life” tour, held on the sidewalk in front of Hagan’s office in the city. A noontime crowd of about 60 focused specially on a Senate bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and known as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, banning abortions after 20 weeks except in cases of rape or incest or when the mother’s life is in danger. The tour plans to travel to other states — including Colorado and Arkansas — with close Senate races.

The North Carolina Values Coalition and the Susan B. Anthony List joined Students for Life of America, Family Research Council Action and Concerned Women for America in an hour-long program that featured speakers from the groups and also David and Jason Benham, conservatives who lost a proposed HGTV show because of remarks and views on homosexuality.

The groups want to outlaw abortions, “absolutely, 100 percent,” said Tami Fitzgerald of the N.C. Values Coalition and state director for Women Speak Out PAC, a partner of the Susan B. Anthony List, which has a team of more than 130 canvassing voters across the state, according to a spokesperson, and working to defeat Hagan.

Fitzgerald, who is based in Raleigh, told She the People: “We don’t need people in Washington who are going to continue to send our taxpayer dollars to radical organizations like Planned Parenthood.” Tillis has said he favors Graham’s bill and believes abortion should be illegal except to save the life of the mother, and in cases of rape and incest.

Hagan’s campaign told She the People: “Kay believes these are difficult and complex decisions that should be left to women to make with the doctor, their family and their faith.” She has the support and endorsement of EMILY’s List, which is dedicated to recruiting, training and electing pro-abortion rights Democratic women.

An Elon University poll of registered voters taken in late April found 44 percent of North Carolinians feel state laws should make access to abortion less difficult compared to 40 percent who said it should be made more difficult. A wave of conservative state legislation has, among other restrictions, tightened regulations on abortion clinics.

Thursday marked the planned conclusion of a “Moral Week of Action,” in North Carolina and a coalition of other states, a continuation of “Moral Monday” gatherings to protest the state legislature’s action. Each day of marches around the capitol focused on an issue, from education to economic justice to Thursday’s scheduled “Vote Your Dreams, Not Your Fears” rally for voting rights.

The Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said in a statement, “For the past six days, we have seen people in North Carolina and all across the country stand up and speak out against the state legislatures and governors who are stripping them of their rights, threatening their health and livelihoods and privileging corporate well-being above their own.”

Will voters who agree be moved to go to the polls? Barber has been leading voter registration efforts across the state this summer.

All this activity weeks before the election is happening against a backdrop of ads financed by outside money, a sure sign that North Carolina could be the key to control of the U.S. Senate.

As the two major party candidates continue to fight it out, they also can’t lose sights of quirky Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh, who is usually polling in single digits —  too low to win but possibly just high enough to affect what will happen in November.