November showdown in Tar Heel country
"Twenty-four times" is Thom Tillis' answer, delivered with a faint flicker of a Cheshire Cat smile. The question was: How many times, that his campaign knows of, has Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan said on camera that under Obamacare, if you like your health insurance, you can keep it? Tillis will be sharing some of her video promises with voters as he seeks to become part of a Republican Senate majority in January 2015.
Tillis will also suggest that Obamacare, which Hagan pluckily says she would vote for again, portends a dismal future of government-run health care akin to that offered in today's alarming VA hospitals, including a troubled one in Durham. There are, however, limits to Hagan's kamikaze loyalty: When Barack Obama visited North Carolina last January, she stayed in Washington.
"If I thought there was a way to get [a Senate Republican majority] without North Carolina, I would not be running," says Tillis, 53. Although he did not complete earning his college degree until he was 37, he had a fulfilling professional life as a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers, and then with IBM, before being elected to the state Legislature in 2006, pledging to serve only four terms. In his third term he became only the second Republican speaker of the House in the 20th century.
After the 2008 elections, Democrats controlled the state House of Representatives 68-52. Today Republicans control it 77-43 and they have upset The New York Times' emotional equilibrium by measures such as cutting from 17 to 10 the number of days for early voting (which is 10 more days of early voting than New York has), curtailing unemployment compensation (which had been the most generous in the Southeast), cutting taxes by about $2 billion over five years, expanding school choice, etc. The Times has lamented "the decline of North Carolina." Some decline:
The state has added more than 200,000 jobs in three years. Unemployment has fallen from 10.4 percent in January 2011, then eighth highest in the nation, to 6.2 percent, one of the largest improvements among the states in the past 13 quarters. The Tax Foundation says North Carolina's business-tax climate may go from the nation's seventh worst to the 17th best. In 2013, the Census Bureau estimated that North Carolina was just 48,000 residents behind Michigan, so by now this state probably has replaced Michigan as the ninth most populous state.
Although Tillis has been an enthusiastic enactor and implementer of the conservatism that North Carolinians voted for, the Republican Senate primary elicited a river of lazy journalism about the "Republican civil war" pitting tea party and other conservatives against "establishment" moderates, such as Tillis. Actually, all Republicans are more or less conservative, just as all Democrats are more or less liberal.
The Republicans' supposed civil war is just a manifestation of what has been called "the narcissism of small differences," the phenomenon of people with minor disagreements being more bitter about them than are people with large differences. As novelist Anthony Trollope wrote, "the apostle of Christianity and the infidel can meet without a chance of a quarrel; but it is never safe to bring together two men who differ about a saint or a surplice."
Hagan, who is in her first term, defeated Elizabeth Dole, whose one term followed Jesse Helms' five terms. Helms, however, never received more than 55 percent of the vote and averaged 53 percent. North Carolina's other Senate seat, currently held by Republican Richard Burr, in his second term, has had seven occupants -- four Republicans and three Democrats -- since Democrat Sam Ervin vacated it at the end of 1974. There are 2.8 million registered Democrats, 2 million Republicans and 1.7 million unaffiliated. In 2008, Obama defeated John McCain 49.7 percent to 49.4 percent. In 2012, North Carolina was Mitt Romney's narrowest victory, 50.5 percent to 48.5 percent.
Including spending by national groups, this will probably be the year's second-most (behind Kentucky) expensive race, drawing upward of $100 million. Americans for Prosperity, supported by Charles and David Koch, has already run $8 million of ads against Hagan, who is toiling to arouse voters' wrath against the brothers from Wichita, of whom many North Carolinians know nothing.
Democrats intervened in the Republican primary, spending millions in attempts to drive Republican voters away from Tillis with ads on television and conservative talk radio questioning his conservative credentials. Now Hagan says his conservatism is extreme. Intellectual whiplash is an occupational hazard of crimson liberals in purple states.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.