The Senate Race, In Sum: Tillis Something We Don't Know

Tons of money, attack ads galore, the nation's biggest Senate race. What did it mean? Not much
Greg Lacour
Precinct 30 in Charlotte just before polls closed on Election Day.

I’ve been trying all day to figure out the Big Lesson from Kay Hagan v. Thom Tillis—what it’s meant to and for North Carolina, what it means now that Tillis has won, what it portends for the state’s future.

I have three things.

1. The Old North State is more divided—culturally, economically, ideologically—than at any time since the 1960s, if not before.

2. Because of the evenness of the divide, North Carolina is and will continue to be a pawn—OK, maybe a rook—in a game played at the national level by very rich people who have no connection to North Carolina.

3. Even with all that money spent—at least $114 million, making it the most expensive Senate race in the nation’s history—I think both Hagan and Tillis could have kept $10 each in their pockets and twiddled their thumbs from spring 2013 to now, and it wouldn’t have made much difference in the outcome.

Statewide voter turnout was 44 percent, the same as in 2010. Look at the counties that went to each. The areas everyone knew would go Democratic did so: in Asheville, Charlotte, the Triad, the Triangle, and the clusters of majority African-American counties in the southeastern and northeastern parts of the state, bordering South Carolina and Virginia. Everything else went to Tillis. The only mild surprise was New Hanover County going to the Republican, too, but that was by only 60 votes.

And here’s the ultimate joke: The Republicans ended up not even needing North Carolina to retake the Senate. The GOP needed six seats and won seven.

A little while ago, I ran all this by Dr. Michael Bitzer at Catawba College, whom I profiled in this month’s issue of the magazine and whom, as you might imagine, was quite election-whipped. But he basically confirmed my suspicions: This was nothing more than your standard midterm. Republicans do well in midterms, especially when a Democrat is President. Hagan, although she ran a tactically excellent campaign, faced an electorate more inclined to take their frustrations out on Washington/Hagan than Raleigh/Tillis. (And let’s be honest—she wasn’t an especially inspiring candidate or exemplary public servant.)

Somewhat elevated early voting returns statewide seemed to augur a good night for Hagan, as did nearly all the polls, which had her leading right up to last night. None of it mattered. Republicans, and unaffiliated voters inclined to vote for Tillis, more than made up for whatever ground Democrats had gained in early voting. The result was nothing we couldn’t have predicted 18 months ago by glancing at a map.

Which, being honest here, kind of chaps my ass. Those of us who care about politics want elections to mean something—to signal massive, tectonic shifts in our citizenry and the course of history its ownself. I wanted Hagan-Tillis, regardless of the outcome, to serve as a referendum on the state’s future, or to at least acquire a significance to match the time, energy, and money invested in it by the candidates, the campaigns, the pundits, the precinct judges.

And after all that, we ended up with pfffftht. “It’s exactly what we’ve seen in the past,” Bitzer told me with a chuckle. “I hate to burst people’s bubbles, but we’ve seen this before, we’ll see it again, and life goes on.”


Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest