This is a guest post by Jason Husser, a political scientist at Elon University and Assistant Director of the Elon University Poll.
Will Republicans take the Senate? The answer will hinge in part on the race between Sen. Kay Hagan and State House Speaker Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Many analysts see this election as a referendum on President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. There is likely some truth in that. According to an April 25-28 Elon University Poll I helped conduct, Hagan is supported by 61 percent of voters who think the ACA will improve healthcare in North Carolina. Among those who think the ACA will make things worse, only 14% support her.
However, the North Carolina race will also allow voters to evaluate not only national politics but state politics, especially the recent policy shift in Raleigh. For the first time in a century, the state has a Republican governor and legislature. The GOP quickly moved to pass many controversial measures — including restrictions on abortion facilities, requirements of voter photo identification, elimination of teacher tenure and implementation of a less progressive tax code. Tillis presided over the NC House of Representative when these measures passed.
Paradoxically, the policy successes of North Carolina Republicans could be a blessing in disguise for Kay Hagan. Because the GOP controls North Carolina state government, the party is vulnerable to be blamed when things go wrong (like a recent $445 million state budget shortfall). The Elon Poll asked those who thought negatively of Tillis this follow-up question: “Why do you have an unfavorable opinion of Thom Tillis?” Responses about his legislative record were the most common mention.
Then there is the recent coal ash spill into the Dan River from a Duke Energy facility. The spill created its own controversy, especially since North Carolina’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, was an employee of Duke Energy for 29 years. His administration has been accused of lax oversight of Duke Energy and other businesses.
In February the Elon Poll asked registered voters, “How much, if anything, have you heard about the recent accident in which coal ash was spilled into a North Carolina river?” Notably, this question does not connect the spill to Gov. McCrory or Duke Energy. Still, those with knowledge of the spill were 12 points more likely to disapprove of McCrory, even after accounting for other factors.
If problems like coal ash deepen, they could affect Tillis too. Consider the graph below, which depicts the relationship between knowing about the ash spill and the probability of having a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Tillis:
Knowing about the coal ash spill doubles the chance that voters will feel unfavorably toward Tillis and significantly reduces their chance of feeling favorably toward him.
These data certainly do not indicate a definitive link between the coal ash spill and the North Carolina Senate election. But they do suggest that, despite the importance of national policy debates, state politics could affect this race. It seems likely, therefore, that Republicans in the state legislature will be less ambitious between now and November so as not to risk a new controversy that will undermine Tillis. The question, however, is whether older controversies might hurt him anyway.