North Carolina’s Senate Race Starts To Look Interesting

As the dog days of August approach, political minds are beginning to focus more intensely on November and the Republicans chances at winning the Senate. The poll numbers are beginning to get more meaningful and in that context North Carolina looks interesting.

In the GOP’s efforts to take back the upper chamber of congress – they need six seats total – North Carolina is crucial. The Tar Heel State voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race by about 2 percentage points, which should mean trouble for Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, particularly with a mid-term electorate that should lean more conservative.

At this point, however, poll averages show Ms. Hagan continues to hold a small lead over her Republican opponent state Rep. Thom Tillis. And the complicated demographic terrain of the North Carolina likely has something to do with that.

The map below shows a breakdown of the types of counties in the state using the American Communities Project, of American University. The 100 counties in the state include 11 different types in the ACP. The state is home to College Towns and Military Posts, Urban Suburbs and Big Cities, Exurbs and Evangelical Hubs.

Why does that matter to Mr. Tillis? Because the fault lines within the Republican Party in particular are still jagged, with tea party and evangelical voters often at odds with the establishment center of the party. Those voters tend to live in different kinds of communities.

In the American Communities Project, the tea party seems to have its strongest base in the Exurbs, the yellow counties on the map above – including Johnston, to the east of Raleigh, and Union, Cabarrus and Lincoln, encircling Charlotte. All those counties gave Mr. Romney 59% of their vote or more and together they hold about 630,000 people.

But the other set of Republican strongholds in the state are the Evangelical Hubs, in purple on the map. There are 16 of them in North Carolina. Together they hold some 1.2 million people and their political views are not always in line with the Libertarian wing of the GOP – particularly on social issues. Mr. Romney won 14 of those 16 counties and in the vast majority he won more than 60% of the vote.

While Mr. Tillis captured the Republican nomination and won across the state, including places that would normally be hot beds of support for the tea party and evangelicals, now he needs to do more than get a majority of the Republican votes from those places. Winning 46% of the primary vote meant that Mr. Tillis avoided a runoff, but it still means more than 50% did not vote for him and there are signs beyond the basic “horse race” poll numbers that suggest he may be having a hard time solidifying support.

The most recent poll from Public Policy Polling, not only found that Ms. Hagan had a slim 3-point lead against Mr. Tillis in a head-to-head race, it found he had a very big favorability gap, internally. Only 24% of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Tillis, while 47% said they had an unfavorable opinion of him – another 29% were not sure.

Compounding Mr. Tillis’s challenges in the state, and perhaps playing a role in those numbers, is Sean Haugh, a Libertarian pizza deliveryman who is also running for the senate seat. Mr. Haugh has gained traction and a small amount of Internet celebrity on You Tube for the self-made-looking videos he has made explaining his candidacy.

Mr. Haugh is essentially keeping the heat on Mr. Tillis from the Libertarian side of the party, where much of the tea party resides. With Mr. Haugh in the race, Mr. Tillis trails Ms. Hagan by about seven points, according to the PPP poll.

In short, Mr. Tillis is going to need to find a way to bring the different kinds of Republicans into his fold by November and it seems he’s going to have to do it with Mr. Haugh out there as well.

It’s still early with plenty of undecided voters – the number is in the double-digits. But the terrain of North Carolina and the unique circumstances with Mr. Haugh, may make the state a harder target than many Republicans imagined this spring.

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