Senator Kay Hagan is trying to distance herself from the president. Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Senator Kay Hagan is trying to distance herself from the president. Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Senator Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat whose seat is a top target of Republicans to regain control of the Senate, walked into the debate hall in Raleigh last night looking sharp in a gray suit.

It only took a few minutes for her Republican challenger, Thom Tillis, to make her a stand-in for President Barack Obama, whose job approval in the state is overwhelmingly negative. In his opening statement, Tillis accused Hagan of rubber-stamping everything Obama wanted to do, and he never let up.

“Kay Hagan has voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time,” he said. He later reprised this theme by adding that the only independence Hagan has shown is “from the citizens of North Carolina.”

Ouch! This is especially harsh for Hagan, who ran in 2008 on the proposition that she should replace Elizabeth Dole because the senator had voted with then-President George W. Bush 92 percent of the time.

Tillis also tried to link Hagan to Obama’s threat to bypass Congress and use executive action to make amnesty-like changes to immigration rules. This even though Hagan opposes unilateral measures by the president. But a zinger is a terrible thing to waste, so Tillis took this shot at Hagan: Obama's definition of the three branches of government is "the executive branch, his pen and his phone."

Hagan has made her share of attacks on Tillis, who oversaw, as North Carolina's House speaker, a legislative session that undid many moderate laws on the books.

She quoted Tillis at a state Republican convention in 2011 as saying that members of the state teachers' association didn't care about children or classrooms -- only about jobs and pensions. She accused him of cutting education funding by $500 million, causing teacher flight to jobs in other states, and harming the state university system. She said she would “never let women down,” as Tillis had done by supporting the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, which gave bosses the power to decide if birth control should be covered under employee-sponsored health insurance for workers in private companies.

These were glancing blows on both sides, but there was also no memorable moment that might have moved the needle in a race that’s neck and neck. The debate did little to change the images of the candidates as pasty, grainy, angry and sometimes foolish versions of themselves that have been created by their barrage of competing ads ($29 million worth, making this the second-costliest race after Mitch McConnell’s in Kentucky).

Tillis's job was to seem more moderate and pragmatic than he was in the primary and that he is in real life. He’s Exhibit A in the state’s lurch to the right, curtailing voting rights, letting the earned income tax credit expire, and reducing eligibility for pre-kindergarten programs. He supported the government shutdown over the Affordable Care Act and killed a bill that would correct pay disparity. After being hammered by Hagan for policies such as restricting abortion rights and attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, which she said proved he "just doesn’t understand the needs of women," Tillis said several times that he would make birth control available over the counter. That probably won't be enough to fix his 18-point gender gap.

Hagan's job was more singular: to show that she is her own senator, independent of an unpopular president. She had to compensate for an Obama drop-in last week to speak at an American Legion convention. When Republican Senator Richard Burr went to greet the president at the airport, she had no choice but to go herself. Once there, she could hardly brush off Obama’s kissy, huggy greeting. She tried to reverse the damage last night with her repetitive listing of her differences with Obama -- on trade agreements, the Keystone XL pipeline, immigration and arming the Syrian rebels in the early stages of that country’s civil war.

There wasn’t much time to accentuate the positive, though Hagan got in her strong military ties, a selling point in a state that’s home to more than 100,000 active-duty service members and more than 700,000 retired personnel. She’s married to a Vietnam veteran, her father and brother were officers in the Navy, her father-in-law was a general in the Marines, and two of her nephews are on active duty. She touted the steps she took to fix Veterans Administration hospitals in the state and the legislation she got passed to improve conditions at Camp Lejeune.

She shares a problem with other Democrats in defending their vote for the Affordable Care Act. The program is popular in her state, where the sign-up rate is one of the highest in the country. It might win her the votes of the happily enrolled, if only she could risk reminding them that the health benefits they enjoy are, in fact, Obamacare. Tillis did the reminding for her, calling her out for breaking the promise to North Carolinians that if you liked your health insurance, you could keep your health insurance. She countered that she is working to fix the law and not repeal it, as Tillis would, throwing consumers back to the bad old days.

Hagan isn’t the raging liberal Tillis has made her out to be in campaign ads. In fact, as she pointed out, the National Journal ranked her as “the most moderate senator in the nation.” Tillis, however, is a deeply conservative nominee who might not fly in a state that’s trending red but has pockets of blue.

Hagan is on uncertain ground, too. In 2008, Obama helped her across the finish line. But the president lost North Carolina in 2012, one of only two states to flip to Mitt Romney. In 2014, if Hagan loses, it may be Obama who held her back.

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.