North Carolina's nondescript, virtually unnoticed, hugely important Senate race

The Democratic strategy has been simple and clear: bash the Republican-controlled legislature and bring down not only the institution’s approval ratings but also those of the speaker, who just happens to have a good chance to be the state’s next U.S. senator. It’s working; in a recent survey by the Democratic polling firm PPP, the legislature had a 19 percent approval rating. Tillis, as House leader, scored a 24 percent positive rating, although many North Carolinians still don’t have an opinion about him. At times, it seems as if disapproval of the legislature is all Tillis’ opponent, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, has going for her. Her own job approval rating stands at 40 percent — dangerous territory for an incumbent seeking re-election.

Given that, it’s probably safe to say that disapproval of the legislature is responsible for Hagan’s current lead in the polls. The horse race was nearly even for several months and then, as spring turned to summer, and the session in Raleigh dragged on amid nasty infighting, Hagan began to inch ahead of Tillis. In the latest PPP survey, completed in late July, she was up by seven, 41 percent to 34 percent. Very few people expect that lead to last. “In the summer of 2013, we saw Sen. Hagan’s numbers go up during the legislative session,” said PPP’s Tom Jensen. “And then, within a month of the legislature going back home, everything went back to the way it was before.” If that happens again, look for the race to return to a tie in the final two months.

The North Carolina campaign is one of a handful of Senate contests — the others being Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, Iowa, and Colorado — whose outcome will determine whether Republicans gain control of the Senate in November. But it has received less coverage, and made much less noise, than some of the others. Why? One pretty plausible explanation is that neither Hagan nor Tillis is a particularly compelling candidate. But the campaign’s nondescript quality might make a particularly instructive. It’s not a battle of personalities. It’s not a battle of political dynasties. It’s a straight-up showdown between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat in a particularly critical swing state — the only state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then for Mitt Romney in 2012. If the GOP can win here, it can win the Senate.