Bitter Senate fight divides North Carolina

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From Greenville, North Carolina

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) took her campaign for re-election to friendly territory on Wednesday, urging an African-American audience to get out and vote early in her election showdown with Republican Thom Tillis, as the tenor of the race in the Tar Heel State became even more strident in its final days.

“I will never back down,” Hagan said repeatedly and defiantly at a speech in Greenville, North Carolina, tearing into Tillis’ record as the Speaker of the state legislature.

“We can see who he’s fighting for, and it’s certainly not the middle class families of North Carolina,” Hagan said to cheers at the General Baptist State Convention.

“I can only win this election with your help,” Hagan added, urging people to take friends to the polls.

“Let’s show my opponent just how wrong he is,” said Hagan, as the crowd joined her in chanting, “North Carolina is not for sale.”

“A mighty fine Senator just walked off the stage,” said the Baptists State Convention chief said as Hagan left the room to applause, pressing the room to get out to vote.

As I had done with Tillis a day earlier in Charlotte, I got a chance for a quick interview with Hagan after this speech – both of them wasted no time in tearing down the other, as this may be one of the nastiest races for the Congress this year.

North Carolina ad wars roll on

After driving well over 500 miles in two days here, my trips up and down the radio dial were filled with all kinds of negative ads from Hagan, Tillis, and a bevy of outside groups trying to tilt things in favor of one of those Senate candidates.

One from the group “American Commitment,” railed against Hagan, accusing her of “race baiting” and “race hustling” tactics.

Just a minute later on the same station, Hagan and Senate Democrats returned the favor, savaging Tillis over his stance on women’s issues.

A minute later, I heard another ad that almost made me drive off the road, it was so over the top against both candidates.

Then I realized, it was a morning show team making fun of both candidates and their attack ads.

Democratic ground game in North Carolina

On the way to Hagan’s speech in Greenville, I stopped off at some local party headquarters, just to get a feel for how things are on the front lines – and it again showed that Democrats are turning out people to vote at a higher rate than the GOP.

“It’s been really, really rocking,” said Beth Punte, the Secretary of the Wilson County Democratic Party, as she excitedly offered up the latest early voting numbers from her home county.

In Wilson County as of Wednesday morning, Democrats had 3,884 early and absentee votes to 1,166 for Republicans and 808 for Independent voters.

That’s an edge of over 3.5-to-1 for the Democrats in a county that only went for President Obama by a 53-46 percent margin in 2012.

In 2008, Obama won that same Wilson County by a narrow 52-48 percent majority.

As Punte and I chatted, several volunteers were working the phones to squeeze out a few more votes.

“I’m calling to see if you’ve already voted,” one woman said into her phone as she worked her way through a list of Democratic voters in Wilson County.

“We thank you for your support,” said another volunteer after getting a positive response from her call.

The latest figures from North Carolina voting officials show that 48.2% of the early vote and absentee ballots have come from registered Democrats, 31.5% from registered Republicans, and 20.1% from Independents and other parties – definitely an advantage right now it would seem for Hagan and Democrats.

After leaving Wilson to drive over to Greenville, the radio was once again overflowing with ads on both sides of this Senate race, but this time it was a positive ad clearly focused on turnout.

“Stand with me, Michelle Obama,” the First Lady said on a gospel music station, urging listeners to “vote early for Sen. Kay Hagan.”

At a rally on Wednesday evening, Tillis appealed to hundreds of Republicans to get out and vote before next Tuesday.

“Please, before Saturday, vote early,” said Tillis, who stood side by side with Mitt Romney; Romney won North Carolina in 2012, and got a very warm reception from the crowd.

Two years ago, Romney was able to generate a decent GOP turnout on Election Day to win a narrow victory in North Carolina and overcome an early vote deficit that is much like this year’s.

As for Tillis, he zeroed in on Hagan’s support for President Obama, arguing it’s time for a change in North Carolina.

“Sen. Hagan went to Washington and voted with President Obama 96 percent of the time,” Tillis said, drawing big cheers from the crowd.