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North Carolina: The GOP's Expensive Gamble

Tillis is the GOP's nominee in North Carolina. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call Photo)

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has plans to pour another $6 million into the North Carolina race — already the most expensive this cycle, and a contest that hasn't shaped up the way the GOP had hoped.  

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate, and a year ago, that math almost always included a victory in the Tar Heel State by defeating Sen. Kay Hagan. But less than a month before Election Day, the North Carolina race still eludes the GOP's grasp — and has put a massive dent in the party's wallet.  

On Monday, the NRSC confirmed to CQ Roll Call it had reserved another $6 million in television ad time in the state to help Tillis. Until now, the party had not reserved airtime for the final two weeks of the race, even as the NRSC announced increased investments in other states, signaling it was still weighing whether to send in the cavalry.  

Through Monday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had almost doubled the NRSC's spending, $5.7 million to the NRSC's $3.2 million, plus another $800,000 the committee spent in coordination with the Tillis campaign.  

"Speaker Tillis is starting to inch ahead and we're putting the pedal to the metal to ensure that he has the resources to win," said NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring.  

North Carolina is especially expensive for campaigns because there are three major media markets. Privately, Republicans grouse Tillis has had lackluster fundraising.  

Hagan maintains a stubborn but small lead in every recent poll, except for one. A High Point University poll released Monday gave Tillis a narrow lead, 40.4 percent to 39.5 percent for Hagan. A USA Today/Suffolk poll  released last week put Hagan ahead, 47 percent to 45 percent. An NBC News/Marist poll  from the week before had her leading Tillis, 44 percent to 40 percent.

A barrage of attacks from Democrats on the state legislature's cuts to education spending have proven effective , defining the terms of the debate.

Republicans privately chide Tillis for not resigning his legislative post to run for Senate. From May through August, instead of focusing his full energies on beating Hagan, Tillis was navigating the legislative “short session” — which turned out to be both contentious and longer than the title suggests.  

But Republicans say there is still time to turn things around.  

“Two weeks is an eternity in this environment, particularly if you’re a Republican,” said GOP pollster Chris Wilson.  

In the final weeks of the campaign, Tillis has tried to turn the focus of the debate away from his record in the legislature, and onto issues of national security, where Republicans see an opening to attack Hagan. In particular, attacks have focused on Hagan's attendance record at Senate Armed Services Committee hearings, and her absence at a hearing on the Islamic State, which she missed to attend a fundraiser.  

The problem for Republicans is that after more than a month of Hagan leading in public polls, her narrow lead is starting to look like it could hold.  

“I think everybody has assumed for a long time that eventually the environment will take over,” said one North Carolina Republican who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “But we haven’t seen it and it just hasn’t happened. And I think a lot of people are starting to feel that it’s not going to."  

The NRSC's last-minute money could redefine the terms of the debate and put Tillis back on the offensive.  

Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin argued that because Hagan is an incumbent and well-known in the state, she is unlikely to accrue much more support than she already has in polls. Hagan received between 44 and 48 percent support in the last batch of recent polling.  

"There's a lot of room for growth for Tillis, and I think Hagan really doesn't have that room for growth," Keylin told CQ Roll Call.  

But enough uncertainty remains that Republicans can’t let up.  

“It’s close enough it could just flip either way,” said North Carolina GOP consultant Carter Wrenn.  

Also from the polls, it's clear undecided voters have yet to break for a candidate. Recent polls found somewhere between 6 percent and 10 percent of electorate remaining undecided.  

“The undecided just stayed undecided,” said Wrenn, adding that with both candidates driving up the other’s negatives, they “just don’t have a choice they like.”  

Tillis' fortunes also depend on how much of the vote Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh takes on Nov. 4. Four percent of respondents in the USA Today/Suffolk poll said they would vote for him, but support for third-party candidates in polls tends to be much higher than on Election Day.  

Early voting begins on Oct. 23 and runs through Nov. 1.  

The race is rated Tilts Democrat by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.  

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