Hagan v Tillis: What Can You Learn?

When you're running for the first time, you won't have a lot of resources and you'll need to take advantage of what you have. One resource is other campaigns - follow them closely and take away the best of what they do, and avoid the mistakes they make. The point of this series is to help first-time candidates do just that. Shoot me an email if you want help with your race. 

Context of the Race

2014 Cook Index for Kentucky: R+3
Polling when Tillis won the primary (May 2014): Hagan +1

Senator Kay Hagan is a first term Senator from North Carolina who won her seat by besting Elizabeth Dole, wife of long time Kansas Senator Bob Dole, in 2008. In her campaign against Dole, Hagan positioned herself as a conservative Democrat who reflects North Carolina's values. North Carolina is a GOP +3 state according to the Cook Political Index, meaning Republicans have a 3 point advantage statewide, on average. The state did vote for Obama in 2008, and has slowly trended Democratic over the past decade. 

Thom Tillis, Hagan's challenger, is a relatively well known Speaker of the North Carolina State House who won a crowded primary in May that included three competitive candidates to get the GOP nomination. Tillis campaigned as a conservative, though many considered him the least conservative of the three primary candidates. 

Polling in the race has been prolific and varied, with the candidates exchanging the lead throughout the campaign. Here is a snapshot of the RCP average throughout the race, courtesy of RealClearPolitics:

Image via  RealClearPolitics

Image via  RealClearPolitics

This snapshot was taken on October 14th. The race has continuously been within 5 points. Of the 7-10 competitive Senate races, this is among the closest. Tillis trailed by less than a point immediately after winning the primary, and has remained close throughout the race. 


The national mood of the electorate has a significant effect on how voters feel about U.S. Senate races, and how they'll feel about your race. It's up to the candidate running against the national mood to make the race about the individual candidates. In this case, with an unpopular Democratic President in office, Hagan is running against the tide.

So what message should Hagan send to voters? She wants voters to go into the polling booth considering whether they want Hagan or Tillis as their Senator, rather than going into the polling booth considering whether Hagan is too close to Obama. Tillis, of course, wants the opposite. 

Politico did an analysis of the race in mid October, and here's what they had to say about Hagan's handling of Obama:

Democrats credit how Hagan’s dealt with an unpopular president, pointing to when the senator greeted Obama at the Charlotte airport in August before a speech only to criticize him later that day on his handling of the Veterans Affairs scandal.

“They’ve done a good job of walking the balance — not making it look like she’s running away from the president but distancing herself from him on issues,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist who worked for Elaine Marshall’s Senate campaign in 2010.

Contrast this with Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, who has let her opponent Mitch McConnell tie the "Obama" weight firmly around her.

Here is one of Hagan's recent ads. Notice in the first one how much the ad is about her. She's looking right into the camera, she's the only person on camera, she talks about her family and connects it to her North Carolina roots. It's not about national politics, and she doesn't mention Republicans or Democrats. 

Tillis wants North Carolina voters thinking about whether Hagan is too much like Obama. Here are a few of his ads. Note in the ad titled "Quiet" we're barely one second into it before Obama's photo and name show up. 

Here are the competing messages of this race: "I [Hagan] have been a good Senator, and I'm independent of the national party" vs. "Kay Hagan is just like Barack Obama." 


Hagan has done an exceptional job of insulating herself from the "Obama clone" comparisons that have sunk the campaigns of many other Democrats running in right-leaning states this year. 

In addition to fundraising well, here's the key to what Hagan has done, via Politico:

Hagan and supporting groups have used a sizable cash advantage to overwhelm Tillis on the airwaves, homing in on unpopular laws from the state legislature to paint the Republican as out of touch. That air assault, combined with Tillis’ lackluster fundraising, has enabled Hagan to avoid the slide her fellow vulnerable incumbents have suffered...An advantage on television and in digital advertising has allowed Hagan to localize the race by focusing on education. Tillis, on the other hand, has struggled to get as much traction on his message tying Hagan to Obama and national Democrats unpopular in the state.(Politico)

One mistake Tillis made was to wait too long to talk what appear to be improprieties by the Senator. Two issues came up late in the campaign - that Chip Hagan had received stimulus dollars voted on by his wife and that Hagan recommended a federal appointment for a judge presiding over a lawsuit her husband was involved in. Whether it was a strategic decision or a failure to fully research the race, those issues should have been raised earlier in the race when voters are more likely to believe negative information about candidates. Together with the "Hagan is just like Obama," the attacks might have given Tillis a better opportunity at winning.

Hagan convinced voters that the race was about Kay Hagan vs. Thom Tillis, and didn't let Tillis nationalize the race as a "republican vs. democrat" contest. The national tide is turning out to be so bad for Democrats that Tillis may still win, but Hagan has run a great race and done everything she could to win. 

Takeaways for Your Campaign

Tillis wanted to make the race about Obama. Hagan successfully made it about Tillis' record in the legislature and specifically on education. 

If you're running in a district that leans towards your opponent, this is the race you want to emulate. Take some time to read through the news clips of this race from the Charlotte Observer and from Politico

If nothing else, browse the headlines and see how well Hagan did at making the race about just two candidates, Hagan and Tillis, rather than three (Hagan, Tillis and Obama). Contrast that with the headlines Alison Lundergan Grimes generated in her race against Mitch McConnell. Notice how often Obama is mentioned in the Grimes/McConnell race vs. Hagan/Tillis?

Hagan may still lose because it's a tough year for Democrats, but she ran an exceptional race that you can learn from. 

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