Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and Republican state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis held their first televised debate Wednesday night. The race is one of a handful of closely watched contests across the country that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate next year.
The debate was a fast-paced hour of topics that ran the gamut from health care to foreign policy.
The debate was held at UNC-TV in Research Triangle Park. At the turnoff to the building, supporters of Senator Hagan and Speaker Tillis held dueling rallies. Planned Parenthood supporters wore pink shirts and held up Hagan signs in front of passing cars. But just a few steps down the road, a group opposed to abortion called Women Speak Out PAC urged people driving by to consider Speaker Tillis instead.
Though abortion as a topic never came up in the debate, the mood inside the building was equally polarized. One of the first questions asked by the moderator, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell, concerned Obamacare and its bumpy implementation. Hagan acknowledged that it has been complicated, but she said constituents tell her they support it.
"They want us to fix and improve this law, and that is exactly what I am doing. But when I look at what Speaker Tillis does, he wants us to repeal the law. He would take us back to that broken system," said Hagan.
Tillis, who referred to Hagan by her first name several times during the debate, said he was against the law:
"I wouldn’t pass Obamacare, which is going to bankrupt this country and fail to fulfill the promises that they’ve made. And Kay knows a little bit about making promises that are not going to be fulfilled."
Tillis was referring to statements made at one time by Hagan saying that recipients of Obamacare could keep their doctors. Hagan replied that was the fault of insurance companies, and that she went on to sponsor legislation to fix the problem.
When it came to education, another issue that has figured prominently this year in state politics, the candidates leaped to differentiate themselves. When O’Donnell asked how they would retain qualified and effective teachers, Tillis was quick to reply:
"We passed this year, one of the largest pay increases for teachers in the last generation. We were able to do that because of the hard decisions we made when we came in, to clean up a lot of the mess that Kay Hagan left behind when she went from Raleigh to Washington," said Tillis.
The state legislature passed a budget with an average seven percent pay raise for teachers, with newer educators seeing the biggest pay bumps and veteran teachers receiving much less.
Hagan made light of that raise, saying that during her tenure as a state budget writer in the General Assembly, teachers received a 21 percent pay raise.
Hagan criticized the tax cuts made last year at the General Assembly, under Speaker Tillis's leadership:
"The fact that he gave tax cuts to the millionaires- he cut education by 500 million dollars. That means fewer teachers in the classroom, larger class sizes, and outdated textbooks. I think Speaker Tillis needs to revamp his education budget."
The cut Hagan referred to occurred last year, when the legislature passed a two-year budget that fell 480 million dollars short of the amount the state estimated was needed to maintain the same level of service in education. That doesn’t take into account the 282 million dollar teacher pay raise passed this year.
It wasn’t unexpected that Hagan and Tillis disagreed profoundly on most of the issues brought up at the event. But there was one issue they were closer in agreement on: what to do about the militant group called ISIS and its presence in Syria. Norah O’Donnell wanted to make sure she understood Tillis' stance.
O'Donnell asked:"Should the U.S. strike ISIS in Syria? Tillis replied:
"I think the U.S. needs to take all actions to protect American citizens and protect freedom-loving people all over the country. I think that the president is to a certain extent now trying to solve a problem that his inaction created."
Hagan’s opinion didn’t differ much from her opponent’s:
"They are the most serious terrorist threat facing the country today," said Hagan. "We need to take action. As I said, time is up. But the president does need to bring a plan."
In the meantime, Hagan and Tillis have their work cut out for them on the campaign trail. The state is divided between Democrats and Republicans. Polls show this race is practically neck-and-neck. The candidates’ next debate is scheduled for October 7th.