STATESVILLE, N.C. — The biggest issue in the North Carolina Senate race? It's not health care, Syrian airstrikes or even the economy.
Often relegated to state and local elections, education has taken a leading role in the race between Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and her GOP opponent, state Speaker Thom Tillis. And in a state steeped in a rich tradition of public schooling, the focus on education is mostly working in Hagan's favor in this high-stakes race.
At her field office Wednesday evening, Hagan readily brings it up to supporters.
"In the state house, [Tillis] did the tax cuts, then he cut, cut, cut. What did he cut? He cut a half a billion dollars from our education system," Hagan said. "You know in North Carolina, education has always been a sacred bipartisan priority." "We have a state toast in North Carolina: 'Where the weak go strong, and the strong grow great,'" Hagan later told reporters. "I think everybody deserves the opportunity to grow both strong and great, and Speaker Tillis is shutting the door behind people on that opportunity."
Republicans need to gain six seats to take control of the Senate, and by many accounts, that path goes through North Carolina. The race is rated as Tilts Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
Republicans argue Tillis has a compelling story to tell on education, including raising teacher pay and increasing the education budget. But with fewer than 40 days to go, he has just started to describe it to voters.
Earlier that day in Greensboro, Tillis recalled his first election as president of the PTA.
"When I was PTA president of Hopewell High School 8 years ago, I wasn’t in the legislature, and when I was in those classrooms — and I volunteered in classrooms the entire time my kids were in school," Tillis said at a campaign event with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Talking about classroom standards, Tillis added, "I want solutions that come out of the teachers' hearts and minds that are invented in the classroom, not a bureaucracy in Washington."
Beyond the stump, state airwaves have been bombarded with ads on education in the Senate race.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reserved $9.1 million in airtime for the Tar Heel race from August through Election Day — and so far, all of their spots have focused on education. In a recent ad, for example, the DSCC charged , "Tillis cut nearly $500 million from schools, froze teacher pay, keeping us near the bottom."
Tillis appears in a classroom and a school library in his two most recent ads touting his record and attacking Hagan. In his latest spot, Tillis says, "We increased school funding by $1 billion, and raised teacher pay. But Hagan calls that a cut.”
An internal poll for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Tillis’ campaign and provided to CQ Roll Call found education to be the second-most cited issue when voters were asked what was important to them. It was the third-most cited issue of importance in the race in an Elon University poll from earlier this month.
Overall, the race's focus on education has been advantageous for Hagan. Democrats view education as a top issue especially for suburban female voters, who are a key part of Hagan's coalition to win in November.
“Education motivates Hagan’s base, and that’s an urban corridor base,” said Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina Democratic operative. “Not only is it an issue that is a good issue for all of North Carolina, it is one that is off the charts on the people that she needs to motivate.”
Polls show a sizable gender gap between the two candidates. A recent Fox News poll found 46 percent of women supporting Hagan, and 30 percent supporting Tillis. The survey, taken Sept. 14 to 16, showed Hagan with a 5-point lead over Tillis.
But there's another reason Democrats have spent big to keep education in the conversation: It takes the focus of the race off national politics — and on to Tillis.
With President Barack Obama’s popularity numbers sliding, and Congress battling cockroaches for higher approval ratings, Democrats' best hope to hold onto the Senate is to make races about state-specific issues instead of the national political environment.
In the North Carolina legislature, Tillis was responsible for passing the state budget that funds public education. The legislature’s efforts were on full display from May through mid-August after a “short session” dragged on for months during the Senate campaign.
The Tar Heel State is also uniquely suited for political messaging on education. The state’s public university system and the Research Triangle Park are considered local gems. North Carolina is the only state with a state constitution mandating the legislature provide funding for public institutions of higher learning.
Republicans roundly dismiss the Democratic ads as false, but the barrage has left them on the defensive.
“The Republicans really haven’t done a very good job of carrying their side of that debate,” said North Carolina GOP strategist Carter Wrenn, who later added they “mostly ignored it until ended up in a political campaign ad and now they’re answering it.”
“You can’t ignore it,” Wrenn said. “It matters to too many people.”
Other Republican groups have gotten into the game too: Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch-funded group, went up with an ad that says Obamacare is bad for education. Carolina Rising, a GOP group, has two ads praising Republican efforts to help teachers and increase funding for schools.
The question for Democrats is whether those attacks will continue to be effective as the legislative session fades into memory.
“The further we get away from the general assembly, does the anger stay?” asked Democratic consultant Thomas Mills. “I just don’t know if the anger stays in place for another six and a half weeks.”
Correction 3:08 p.m.: An earlier version of the story misstated the name of the school where Tillis served as president of the PTA.
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