As backdrop, there were the numbers that show the race to be among the most competitive in the country, one of the states that could decide which party controls the Senate.
But Hagan, a first-term incumbent, focused Wednesday on a different set of numbers: the state budget, which Tillis, the North Carolina House speaker, helped craft and which she said pays public school teachers too little. The budget has been at the heart of the discourse in the contest, and Tillis defended what he said still amounted to a 7 percent pay raise for teachers.
“That’s reality. And that’s math,” Tillis said. “And that’s something that Kay needs to accept.”
“I’m actually insulted by his comments,” Hagan responded shortly thereafter. “I was actually vice president at a bank. I wrote billion-dollar state budgets in the state of North Carolina. I understand math. But what I really value are our math teachers in this state, and Speaker Tillis doesn’t.”
Hagan likely knew Tillis’ attack was coming. “That’s simple math, but simple math is lost on Senator Hagan,” Tillis said in a recent television ad for his campaign.
But no math colored the debate as much as the stark numbers game facing Tillis and Hagan in the final few months of the midterm election cycle: One of the closest, most competitive races in the country, propelled by many millions of dollars in spending, and with one Senate seat as the prize.
As a Democrat running for re-election in a state that tends to favor Republicans, Hagan is well aware that her greatest weaknesses are in her title as senator, at a time when public dissatisfaction with Washington lawmakers and disapproval for the president are perilously high. Either or both factors could derail Hagan’s bid for re-election, and Tillis attempted to capitalize on each.
“Kay Hagan’s voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time,” Tillis said. “You can’t vote 95 percent of the time with President Obama and say you’re moderate or independent. The only independence I’ve seen from Kay Hagan over the past five years is independence from the people of North Carolina.”
But Hagan countered with pointed critiques of Tillis’ statehouse tenure, in particular the state budgets that set pay for teachers.
“North Carolina ranks 48th in what we pay teachers, and he’s bragging about that?” Hagan said.
As the candidates talked past each other, they also spoke as though they were campaigning in different races entirely. Kay Hagan, with her hyper-focus on state issues, sounded like she was running for governor of North Carolina. Thom Tillis, with his stern rebukes of the president’s policies and the “Washington establishment," could be mistaken for someone challenging Barack Obama for the presidency.
Those divergent strategies have been calculated to the utmost. If Hagan is able to persuade North Carolina voters that she has acted as an independent check on the president, Democrats say, she has a fighting chance to keep her seat.
But Tillis has done his utmost to link Hagan and Obama. At times Wednesday, Tillis didn’t even bother with Hagan’s stance, and lasered straight to the president, as in a discussion on immigration.
“I don’t know where Sen. Hagan is on amnesty, but it appears as though the president is prepared to grant amnesty,” Tillis said. “I believe that is a colossal mistake.”
Hagan countered with a description of the Senate’s bipartisan plan for immigration reform, which she supported. “This bill is not amnesty,” Hagan said.
But some of the debate’s most memorable lines of attack were the least original. For Hagan, that meant turning to a comfortable standby: criticizing Tillis, a Republican man, on women’s issues, including access to contraception. Tillis supports over-the-counter access to oral contraceptives, which Hagan argues would raise costs for women.
“When women’s best interests are on the line, I will never back down,” Hagan said. “When I look at Speaker Tillis’ record on women, it’s abysmal.”
Tillis, meanwhile, drew inspiration from Hagan’s own attacks in 2008 on then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the Republican whom Hagan unseated. At the time, Hagan criticized Dole as “ineffective” and too obedient to the president.
“Kay Hagan has not authored a bill in six years that’s gone to the president’s desk,” Tillis said Wednesday. “We need somebody who’s going to commit to getting things done and get it done.”
Hagan countered, "Speaker Tillis, you don't understand my records in congress. I have gotten things done. My America works jobs bill passed. My tuition assistance benefit for our military passed. All of these bills were bipartisan."
The candidates found common ground in their eagerness to put their qualms with Obama on the record for North Carolina voters; indeed, at times the debate devolved into a contest of who could better criticize the president and his policies.
Hagan and Tillis will meet for their next debate Oct. 7.