by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The latest print edition of National Review features John Hood’s profile of North Carolina’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race. Under the headline “Hagan Hiding,” Hood details incumbent Democratic Den. Kay Hagan’s efforts to transform her re-election bid into a referendum on Republican challenger Thom Tillis’ record as speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives.
Hood’s not convinced Hagan’s strategy will work.
Governors and legislatures now occupy a central place in the national debate about how best to foster economic growth. Many conservatives cite the sizzling economy of Texas as proof that smaller, market-friendly government is best. In response, the Left points to Wisconsin and Kansas as states where, they allege, Republican leaders oversold the benefits of conservative reform and now face subpar economic growth.
Although these matters are best judged over the long run, North Carolina’s experience to date strengthens the conservative side of the argument. Since the first round of fiscal and regulatory policies crafted by Thom Tillis and his colleagues went into effect in mid 2011, North Carolina payrolls have grown by more than 220,000 — a job-creation rate higher than the national average and higher than the rate in every other southeastern state except Florida. North Carolina’s GDP growth has also outpaced regional and national averages. And North Carolina’s U-5 unemployment rate — a statistic that includes workers who’ve dropped out of the labor force — is now 8.1 percent, equal to the national average and down dramatically from mid 2011, when the state’s 11.9 percent rate was one of the highest in the country.
In his campaign appearances and TV ads, Thom Tillis is hardly running away from his legislative record. He’s proud of it. Hagan and her allies have resorted to concocting such absurd claims — that the Republicans raised taxes on 80 percent of North Carolinians, for example, or cut education spending by half a billion dollars — that even fact-checkers for the Washington Post and left-leaning outfits have judged them false. Over the four years Tillis has led the state house, general-fund appropriations for public education have risen nearly $1 billion, at a pace more than sufficient to keep up with inflation and enrollment. And large tax cuts in 2011 and 2013 left a majority of North Carolina households at every income level with a lower tax burden.
While Hagan seems desperate to talk about anything except her own service in the Senate, Tillis mixes a spirited defense of his significant accomplishments in North Carolina with a bracing attack on Hagan’s lack of significant accomplishments in Washington. Six years ago, Hagan beat Elizabeth Dole in part by describing her as a rubber stamp for George W. Bush. In one of the most colorful ads of the 2008 cycle, a group supporting Hagan put two elderly actors in rocking chairs debating whether Dole was “92” or “93.” While nominally about how often Dole sided with Bush in floor votes and how low she ranked in Senate effectiveness, the ad in reality was a not-so-subtle dig at Dole’s age. “She’s just not a go-getter like you and me,” one of the old men quipped to the other.
Turnabout is fair play. It happens that Senator Hagan has voted with Obama’s position 95 percent of the time, a fact that Tillis and anti-Hagan groups are reminding voters of at every opportunity. “The only independence I’ve seen from Kay Hagan in six years is independence from the citizens of North Carolina,” Tillis said in their debate. Although the president is only slightly more unpopular in this swing state than in the country as a whole, that’s bad enough. Hagan has answered the charge by describing herself as one of the most moderate Democratic senators — which in today’s polarized Senate isn’t saying much — and by, once again, attempting to change the subject back to the state legislature.