Duke Faculty: Control of the Senate May Come Down to NC Race

Part of the The Road to the Midterms, 2014 Series


If you're sick of political ads, door hangings, mailers and e-mails begging for dollars, you'd better get used to it.

For the next month, that bombardment will only increase as the neck-and-neck race for the U.S. Senate intensifies.

North Carolina is considered the epicenter of this year's midterm election because the winner of the Senate race between Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis could determine which party controls the chamber – and, if it's the GOP, Congress.

North Carolina is one of several very close Senate races. "One election could make the difference," political scientist John Aldrich said Friday during a live, one-hour interview with WFAE, an NPR affiliate in Charlotte.

Fellow Duke political scientists Kerry Haynie and David Rohde also took part in the interview.

The party that can motivate the most members of its base to the polls will likely win control of the Senate, the trio agreed.

"I think it will depend on what the strategy is for getting people to the polls," Haynie said.

But regardless of whether Republicans wrest control of the Senate from Democrats or leadership of the two houses remains split between the parties, gridlock is likely to continue with a Democrat in the White House, the faculty said.

"The only way a party will be able to enact its programs, enact its significant legislation and get it through is if one party holds the House, Senate and White House simultaneously," Rohde said.

The U.S. Senate race in North Carolina is generating tens of millions of dollars in spending from third-party groups trying to sway voters. The largest share of the money being spent on TV ads is from outside the state, Rohde said, adding that such groups are outspending the candidates by a ratio of around "three or four to one."

These outside groups are generally pushing issues that aren't necessarily priorities for the two candidates, the Duke faculty said.

Voters angered by Republican-led efforts at the legislature, which galvanized the Moral Monday movement, could motivate Democrats on Election Day, Haynie said. This includes the state's new voting law that sought to eliminate same-day registration during early voting and not count any ballots cast Nov. 4 from outside a person's assigned precinct.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday suspended these provisions until after the election, saying the new law would likely have disenfranchised black voters. Tillis has said Republicans plan to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

"If that activism is activated on Election Day it could be the deciding factor in some of these close elections," Haynie said. "African-American and Latino voters are concerned about the perceived rolling back of voting rights."

As for partisanship, both parties have moved more to the extreme, Rohde said, but Republicans more so.

"I think the data do show that both parties have moved, in the Congress, toward the ends of the spectrum over last couple of decades, but disproportionately Republicans have moved further to the extreme than the Democrats have. Political scientists are still puzzled as to why that's true," he said.

Rohde said many expected Hagan to lose six months ago, but with so many polls showing the race within the margin of error, he thinks she will likely win by slight margin. Kerry agreed.

Aldrich, however, isn't sure, asking, "Does anybody have a coin to toss?"