Durham, N.C. — Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis traded accusations and talking points for an hour Wednesday night during their first face-to-face debate before the Nov. 4 election.
In the first of two debates sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, the two candidates addressed issues ranging from immigration and U.S. policy in Syria to the Affordable Care Act and education spending.
Tillis repeatedly hammered the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., Hagan's record in shepherding legislation through Congress and her frequent support of policies backed by President Barack Obama, who has a low approval rating among North Carolina voters.
"When Kay Hagan went to Washington, she immediately became part of the Washington establishment, a rubber stamp for Barack Obama and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid," Tillis said. "She's failed the people of North Carolina."
For her part, Hagan used the unpopular General Assembly as an anchor to tie Tillis down, citing cuts to unemployment benefits, the state's refusal to expand Medicaid to provide health coverage for the poor and disabled and the exodus of teachers from the public school system.
"Speaker Tillis has the wrong priorities," Hagan said. "At every opportunity, he has fought for policies that are taking our state backwards."
On several occasions, Hagan pivoted away from questions from moderator Norah O'Donnell of CBS News to bring up Tillis' record on education. When discussing the concept of raising the minimum wage or dealing with unemployment, the senator noted that the best way to expand North Carolina's economy is through investing in education, something she said a Tillis-led House has failed to do in recent years.
Tillis responded by citing the 7 percent average pay raise for teachers that lawmakers passed this summer as part of the state budget.
"Sen. Hagan really needs to understand and maybe spend more time back in the state to understand the great things we've done in this state," he said.
Tillis shifted away from some questions as well, focusing on Hagan's ties to Obama and how statements she made when running for Senate in 2008 compared with her record today. Repeatedly referring to the senator by her first name rather than by her title, he said she failed to push for improvements in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for five years, and didn't try to hold down the national debt.
"That seems to be saying one thing and doing another, and that's not new to Kay," he said. "Take a look at Kay in 2008, and take a look at Kay of 2014 – Kay 1.0 and Kay 2.0."
Hagan tried to separate herself from Obama, noting that she voted against trade deals that cost North Carolina jobs and from Democrats in Congress, noting that she voted against a budget that cut military spending.
"I stand with the president when it's right for North Carolina, but let me tell you, I stand with the people of North Carolina when it's right for the people of North Carolina," she said.
After the debate, both candidates were enthusiastic about their performances.
“I was just standing on our convictions, standing on what I believe, and I believe that Kay Hagan’s failed the people of North Carolina,” Tillis said.
“I feel great about this debate. As I’ve said, I think there’s this huge contrast,” Hagan said.
Tillis also used time in the press room to rebut Hagan's assertion that he doesn't understand women.
"I’m worried about this administration and what they’ve done to women," he said. "Under Barack Obama and Kay Hagan, more women are out of work. They’re suffering disproportionately. Under Obamacare, more women are having more strains because now they know their health care options are going to be limited.”
Meanwhile, Hagan responded to Tillis' claim that she doesn't understand budgetary math.
"When I hear over and over again about the increase, the 'largest raise in history,' I think teachers in North Carolina, I think parents, I think families are insulted by his term of 'math,'" she said. “I understand math, but I understand the value of a math teacher even more. And when I look at the droves of teachers who have left North Carolina, it concerns me greatly.”
The two candidates will debate again on Oct. 7.