Tillis feels the backdraft in the polls after the first U.S. Senate debate | Citizen | Indy Week
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Tillis feels the backdraft in the polls after the first U.S. Senate debate 

I was not alarmed that Thom Tillis kept calling Kay Hagan "Kay," and not "Senator Hagan," in their first debate. Clearly, it was intentional. Tillis was trying to diminish Hagan, even as she unfailingly addressed him as "Speaker Tillis." It would've bothered me, Mr. Speaker, except that it was so dumb.

It was dumb, first, because the Hagan campaign is wholly devoted to rebranding its candidate "Kay," your neighbor and friend, rather than Senator Hagan, your incumbent politician. Tillis rolled out a cartload of Kay.

But there's dumb and there's dumber, and this was dumber because—as a smart Democrat whispered to me a few days later—it helped Hagan, a first-term U.S. senator running for re-election, turn the tables on Tillis and treat him as the incumbent. Which was the last thing Tillis wanted.

And here's where it verges on dumbest. Tillis, in fact, is an incumbent in the sense that he's a leader of the Republican regime in the General Assembly that has hijacked the state and pushed it far to the political right. So he could be running on his record of service to the right-wing cause, in which case being seen as an incumbent might be to his advantage.

Instead, however, Tillis is running away from his record, especially on education and women's health. It's like he's the incumbent and the challenger, and he's debating himself.

Thus, for example, when Hagan attacks him for Republican cuts to public school aid, Tillis doesn't come right back with, "That's correct, the schools are a waste pit, so we cut their budgets and saved the taxpayers money."

That is what Republican legislators think, and it's what they did. But it's not what Tillis says. What he says is that they increased school funding and gave teachers "one of the biggest pay increases in a generation."

Now here's the thing about misleading the voters. If you're going to get away with it, what you say must be plausible and consistent with what you've stood for in the past. It can't be such an abrupt departure that folks think you're either a hypocrite with no beliefs of your own or else just blowing smoke up their backsides.

So how's that working for Tillis? Short answer: It's not.

All year, polls have shown the right-wing version of Tillis running neck-and-neck with Hagan. But last week, after voters digested the news about the debate—the real-time audience was small—and, more important, after they got a load of the new and ostensibly pro-schools Tillis in his TV ads, four polls showed him dropping behind Hagan by 4-to-9 percentage points.

The rebranded Tillis isn't selling as the public schools' pal or women's BFF because he isn't. And we know he isn't.

Let's go to the record books. This is the same Thom Tillis who in 2011 told the state Republican convention that teachers who belong to the N.C. Association of Educators "don't care about kids. They don't care about classrooms. They only care about their jobs and their pensions."

That was the year Tillis and his Republican crew took over the General Assembly. With school budgets already starved by the Great Recession, the Republicans kept them down, cut taxes and refused to increase teachers' pay. The upshot was that North Carolina dropped to 48th in per-student funding of public schools. Meanwhile, they did fund private-school vouchers and a raft of new charter schools with little or no oversight.

All this was consistent with the long history of Republican distrust for public education, which attempts to be the great equalizer in a society dominated by the same old-white-male culture as, well, the Republican Party. It's understandable why some Republicans don't want their children taught too much about "controversial" topics—and why they prefer their own schools.

Now, in an election-year panic, Tillis wants to be known for giving teachers a belated 7 percent pay raise? Which, when the General Assembly got through with it, was actually 5.5 percent? The Tillis who says, "I know these teachers, they're great people."

It won't wash.

Similarly, Tillis and his fellow Republicans voted to defund Planned Parenthood and infamously rewrote a motorcycle-safety bill to obstruct the operations of abortion clinics. Tillis endorsed the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, which allows companies covered by the Affordable Care Act to offer health-insurance plans without contraception coverage for female employees. He's on the record saying states can outlaw contraceptives.

Yet there was Tillis in the debate claiming to be for expanding women's access to contraceptives, which he proposed to do by making the pill an over-the-counter product they'd pay for themselves instead of a prescription drug that, under the Affordable Care Act, is supposed to be covered with no co-pay.

Melissa Reed of Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund promptly denounced Tillis for cynically deflecting attention from what she accurately described as his "long record of wanting to deny women access to birth-control coverage."

Is it any wonder that, while he's leading in the polls with male voters, Tillis trails with women by as much as 20 points?

North Carolina is closely divided between moderate and progressive Democratic voters and conservative Republican voters. Between are swing voters, including many women, who judge candidates not so much by their stance on issues as by whether they seem trustworthy. It's these swing voters that Tillis is driving away as he talks out of both sides of his mouth and doesn't seem to get how obvious he is.

And as he talks down to women, even the U.S. senator he's trying to replace. Senator Hagan, that is.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Let me explain something to you, Kay."

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