Raleigh, N.C. — Shortly after declaring victory Tuesday night in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Thom Tillis went on the attack against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
"We're going to take things in the direction that we’ve taken this state – cleaning up Kay Hagan's mess in Raleigh, now cleaning up Kay Hagan's mess in Washington," Tillis said.
The rhetoric was nothing new. Tillis virtually ignored the other seven candidates in the Republican primary in debates and on the campaign trail in recent months, focusing his attention on criticizing Hagan.
"We've been trying to point to Kay Hagan's failures – her deciding vote on 'Obamacare,' her failure to work to get things done on a bipartisan basis – and now we want to go up there and change that in November," he said. "There won't be a break here. We’re working every single day between now and November to prepare ourselves for the win."
The North Carolina race is one of six around the country targeted by Republicans in their effort to win control of the U.S. Senate. National political observer Stu Rothenberg on Wednesday called the race a toss-up after earlier saying that it tilted toward Hagan as the incumbent.
The national spotlight on the race comes with an avalanche of advertising money. More than $6 million has already been spent this year on behalf of Hagan and Tillis, and it's just beginning.
"It's going to be nonstop," William Peace University political science professor David McLennan said. "You're going to hear all the bad things Hagan's done in the U.S. Senate, all the bad things Tillis has done in heading the state House of Representatives."
Most of the spending so far has been by outside groups, but Tillis said he doesn't think the negative ads will play a critical role in the campaign.
"I think those efforts provide almost a form of air cover. They help inform the voters and make people more aware," he said. "I think, at the end of the day, it's the boots on the ground. It’s the volunteers. It’s the tens of thousands of phone calls. It’s the door-knocking. It's all those kinds of things together."
Despite his attacks on Hagan, Tillis maintained that he is waging a positive campaign and blamed Democratic groups for the race's negative tone so far.
"They can't win on their results because their results have been a disaster. So, of course, the only thing they're going to do is make this negative," he said. "We’re going to focus on the results we got in Raleigh and the results that we will do when I get to Washington."
Senate Democrats plan to start airing a new ad backing Hagan on Friday.
Hagan's campaign issued a statement that called the election "a simple choice between two very different records."
"Thom Tillis has spent his time in Raleigh pushing a special interest agenda that has rigged the system against middle-class families," Hagan said in the statement. "North Carolinians know that I am the only candidate in this race who will put our state’s needs ahead of what the special interests want."
Much as Tillis points to Hagan's support of the Affordable Care Act, Hagan highlighted Tillis-led state House moves such as reducing unemployment benefits, rejecting a Medicaid expansion that could have provided health coverage to thousands and passing tax cuts that favor the wealthy.
"My campaign will be working to reach North Carolinians to talk about my track record of results for our state and my pledge to continue putting North Carolina first," she said.