Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), up for reelection during this midterm election cycle, works with her staff off the Senate floor last month. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Independent voter Christine Telfer doesn’t have much of an impression of Sen. Kay Hagan, the Democrat whose bid for reelection is dominating the airwaves in this state. But Telfer, 65, a retired travel agent, is emphatic about the Republican seeking to unseat Hagan.

“I can tell you I would not vote for Thom Tillis for any reason,” Telfer said as she accompanied her grandchildren to gawk at race cars and monster trucks on display recently in a shopping-mall parking lot. “I don’t like him. I don’t like his policies.”

The visceral reaction to Tillis, who as speaker of the state House has been one of the leaders of a new conservative majority, explains why Democrats think Hagan may be in as strong a position as any vulnerable Democratic U.S. senator this year. Hagan is one of a handful of incumbents whose seats are seen as crucial for Republicans to win to retake control of the Senate.

While Tillis has tried to link Hagan to a dysfunctional Congress and an unpopular Democratic president, Hagan has devoted much of her time to presenting Tillis as a key player in a state government out of step with most North Carolinians.

In effect, the Senate race here is shaping up as a battle over which is worse, Washington or Raleigh, and whether President Obama or the Republican-led state legislature is more guilty of overreach.

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For Hagan, who like her fellow Democratic incumbents is contending with voter apathy and anger toward Washington, portraying her rival as an extremist is an effective way to motivate her party’s base. The strategy worked last year in Virginia for Terry McAuliffe (D) in his gubernatorial victory over Ken Cuccinelli II (R).

Tillis emerged victorious from a competitive primary in May but was mired much of the summer in a budget standoff in Raleigh that limited his ability to hit the campaign trail. A polarized reaction to the sweep of changes passed by the GOP-led General Assembly has further complicated Tillis’s strategy and given Hagan something to talk about with voters. The legislature’s record in recent years has included new laws that mandated voter identification and cut unemployment benefits.

During a stop last week at a park in a predominantly black neighborhood in Charlotte, Hagan repeatedly stressed her support for public schools, which were at the center of the legislative standoff in Raleigh. “I look at his policies in North Carolina, what he has done that has been harmful to North Carolina,” she said, adding later, “I think Thom Tillis has the wrong priorities.”

Tillis was not available for an interview, according to his spokesman, Daniel Keylin, who countered that tax cuts and regulatory changes passed by the General Assembly since Republicans gained power in 2010 have boosted middle-class families and small businesses. Tillis aides conceded that Hagan has gotten a head start raising money and making her pitch to voters but said voters would come to respect the Republican’s story. Tillis, they said, grew up in a trailer park and is a “self-made man.”

“Only one candidate has been telling a story,” said Paul Shumaker, a Tillis strategist. “The Thom Tillis story has yet to be told.”

Tillis’s campaign, meanwhile, has called Hagan a “rubber stamp” for Obama’s policies, chiding her for her vote supporting the president’s health-care overhaul. The voters’ negative feelings toward Obama, Tillis aides said, will help mobilize the Republican base.

“North Carolinians are really not happy with the direction our country is going in,” Keylin said.

Moreover, GOP activists hope his record will be a further motivator for conservatives. Linda Angele, president of a Charlotte-area Republican women’s club, said conservatives have been inspired by the changes ushered in by the state’s Republican leaders and are eager to elect Tillis and help give the party a Senate majority in Washington.

“We were so excited when North Carolina went red a couple years ago,” Angele said. “We really think we can take it all the way.”

For now, voters are sharply divided, with public polls showing Hagan and Tillis in a close race. And while the incumbent Democrat has a big financial advantage — with $8.7 million on hand at the end of June, compared with Tillis’s $1.5 million — Hagan has been burning through her cash with expensive ad buys in recent weeks. Meanwhile, outside groups are expected to continue pumping millions of dollars into the race, which is on track to be one of the most expensive in the country.

Both candidates appear to be seeking a careful balance, energizing core voters while trying not to alienate the state’s large number of centrists. Tillis, for instance, sought this week to distance himself from the politics of brinkmanship embraced by many tea party conservatives. He told the Washington Examiner that GOP lawmakers who supported last year’s government shutdown were “well intentioned” but added that “you’ve got to fund government operations.” Hagan recently aired a television ad portraying herself as a “moderate” who is “not too far left, not too far right.”

Yet Hagan and her supporters hope to capitalize on the “Moral Mondays” protests that took off last summer, when thousands of demonstrators turned out at the statehouse to protest new conservative laws. Though not as large this year, the efforts have persisted across the state. On Aug. 4, an estimated 3,500 people attended a rally in Asheville, where the state NAACP leader, the Rev. William Barber, urged people to take their passion to the polls this fall. The gathering was part of the group’s nonpartisan voter registration drive, dubbed “Moral Freedom Summer,” that has organizers deployed across the state.

Wanda McIver, 56, a Durham Democrat, said she feels the added motivation to turn out in November. “I plan to make my kids vote, everybody,” said McIver, who works at a state university. “I think in North Carolina, because people feel so strongly about the Republican legislature, they are going to go out and vote,” she added.

Antipathy toward the GOP-led state government has charged Hagan’s campaign with a boost of passion that is especially important for a relatively low-profile senator. Even many stalwart Democratic voters react quizzically when asked their opinions of her.

“I think she’s been supportive of environmental issues,” ventured Durham resident Lindsay Perry, 32, as she lunched with her 9-month-old son outside a downtown bakery. “The thing is, I’m a reasonably educated and interested citizen, but I still . . . ” She trailed off, stumped.

Hagan, in the meantime, is trying to introduce herself to the party base she needs to turn out in November. Many of these voters helped Hagan win in 2008, though they were mostly energized by the candidacy of Barack Obama.

On a warm summer evening in Hidden Valley, a largely African American community in Charlotte, several hundred residents gathered in a neighborhood park for a National Night Out barbecue. Old-school doo-wop music blared from the speakers as children scrambled across the basketball court, shouting in excitement.

Few people seemed aware that they had a U.S. senator in their midst. After posing for some photos, Hagan took the microphone briefly to address the gathering, the din barely subsiding as she delivered brief remarks.

Afterward, she introduced herself to an 11-year-old boy.

“Everything I do is for you,” she said. When he stared at her blankly, Hagan tried a different tack: “I work with the president. I do!”