Senate race in N.C. sets the stage for 2016 presidential competition

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from The Washington Post,

Thom Tillis, right, and his wife greet supporters at a election night rally in Charlotte, N.C

North Carolina is this year’s ground zero in American politics. There are other highly competitive races around the country, but no contest so neatly captures all the conflicting currents of ideology, money, demographics and political tactics as the one between Sen. Kay Hagan (D) and her newly nominated Republican challenger, Thom Tillis.

Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, more than survived his first battle as a Senate candidate. Facing a primary challenge Tuesday from both an opponent backed by tea party activists and another by some in the party’s evangelical wing, he cruised past the 40 percent mark he needed to avoid a runoff — with considerable help from the GOP establishment.

For the next six months, Tillis and Hagan will square off in a state that was the scene of fiercely contested presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 that produced a split decision, and where a conservative shift in its state politics will be every bit as central to the debate as will President Obama and his national record.

In a year in which each party considers turning out its base as critical to success, both sides have plenty of fodder to work with. Republicans will run against Hagan by linking her to an unpopular president, trashing the Affordable Care Act as big-government overreach and portraying her as a generally ineffective legislator. Democrats will attempt to connect Tillis to a series of new laws in North Carolina that provoked a strong backlash and generated “Moral Monday” protests in the state capital by Democratic interest groups. And they will tie Tillis to the billionaire Koch brothers, who have shown that they are prepared to spend down their fortune to help defeat the incumbent.

With Tillis as the Republican nominee, North Carolina’s Senate race offers perhaps the best laboratory in the country for a test of whether voters think the new Republican Party has shifted too far to the right or it stands for a smaller-government agenda that has a broader appeal than Democrats believe.

Precursor for 2016

Over the past two years, state government has taken a right turn in North Carolina under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his big majorities in the state House and Senate. Democrats consider it an agenda that harms the middle class and those most vulnerable. They cite as examples cuts in education spending, a decision not to enter into the expanded Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, the defunding of Planned Parenthood and cuts in extended unemployment benefits. They also say the state’s new voting rights bill would make it more difficult for minorities and others to vote.

Tillis and his allies will tell voters a different story, one that emphasizes the positive. They will draw a contrast between what they view as a burgeoning federal government under Obama (and Hagan) and a state government that has sought to rein in governmental excesses in favor of the private sector and individual freedom. Republicans see what Tillis helped lead as a reform conservative agenda that cut income taxes, eliminated the estate tax, did away with teacher tenure, provided more school vouchers and boosted charter schools.

All of this could become a trial run for the national debate in the 2016 presidential campaign — a choice between the record of the Obama administration and the record of Republican governors and legislatures in states where the GOP has unified control.

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