Elon, N.C. — North Carolina's U.S. Senate campaign is so tightly contested during this week after Labor Day that neither candidate has the incentive to take risks in Wednesday's debate, said Charlie Cook, a nationally known political analyst who spoke with reporters at Elon University.
"There's no Senate race more important than North Carolina in terms of a majority in the Senate," said Cook, who writes for his own well-regarded website as well as National Journal and other media.
While there's a lot at stake, Cook says it's unlikely that the debate will swing that balance unless either Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan or Republican challenger Thom Tillis, the current speaker of the state House, makes an error. That's because debates, even widely broadcast ones, don't capture a lot of viewers.
"Most people don't watch debates," Cook said. "But the key thing is, does someone make a mistake or do something that can be portrayed as a mistake that can be turned into a 30-second ad and have their brains beaten out over it. So, it's really secondary effect."
WRAL News will carry the debate, sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, live on TV and online at 7 p.m.
Cook, who is based in Washington, sees the campaign much as local analysts have, with Hagan trying to show she is independent of a president often viewed as too liberal for the state and Tillis trying to separate himself from a legislature stocked with "a more exotic breed of conservative than he is."
Those tropes, he said, would likely be on display during Wednesday's debate.
"That is the framework for this campaign," Cook said, "and I think the question is, which one does a better job of framing themselves."
Whoever wins, Cook said, will be joining a "dysfunctional" Senate gummed up by 30 years of building political animosity. Democrats hold a majority, but not one big enough to drive legislation through the chamber. A GOP flip, he said, will likely only give Republicans 51 or 52 seats.
"You have a Senate that's sort of convulsing and having a hard time getting things done," he said. "If you flip the Senate over and Republicans are in the majority, I don't think that changes much."