Durham, N.C. — Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis aggressively attacked each other Tuesday during their second debate in five weeks.
Hagan went on the attack from the start, telling people in her opening statement that Tillis' policies as speaker of the North Carolina House have divided the state, favoring the wealthy over the middle class.
"Your idea of effectiveness is hurting the people of North Carolina every single day," she said.
Tillis responded by sounding a theme he would return to often during the hour-long debate: Hagan is a rubber-stamp for the "failed policies" of the Obama administration and has broken her promise to represent North Carolina residents.
"Having an independent voice and going to Washington and working for (North Carolinians) is the solution," he said. "We need a senator who will go to Washington and fulfill the promises that they make, not break the promises and make commitments that they don't deliver on."
ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos broached a range of subjects during the debate, from U.S. policy fighting Islamic militants and the Ebola outbreak to the Common Core academic standards and Monday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear any appeals of invalidated state gay marriage bans.
Hagan said she supports U.S. air strikes on militants in Iraq and Syria and has long advocated for arming moderate Syrian groups fighting against the government there as well as Islamic State forces. She said Tillis "waffles" on the issue and doesn't spell out what actions he would take against the militants.
Tillis blamed the growing strength of the militants on President Barack Obama's policies – he called it a "strategy of peace through weakness – and said he supports a no-fly zone over Syria and revoking the U.S. passports of Americans who fight with the militants.
Hagan pointed out several times during the debate that Tillis wasn't answering Stephanopoulos' questions, such as when he asked Tillis about supporting sending U.S. troops to fight in Syria. She said she believes armed Syrian rebels could handle the situation without committing U.S. troops.
Tillis first brought up the discussion of Ebola during questioning on immigration reform, saying the U.S. needs to seal its border with Mexico. No Ebola cases have been reported in Central America. Last week, he called for banning all flights to the U.S. from the west African counties where the viral outbreak is greatest.
Hagan said she would be open to a travel ban as part of a broader solution, including more investment in potential treatments, but she called Tillis's approach to the crisis "scare tactics."
Regarding the gay marriage decision, Tillis said more than 60 percent of North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment just two years ago defining marriage in the state as being between one man and one woman, and he feels obligated to continue fighting to uphold that vote. He then railed against the "liberal activist judges" appointed by Obama and approved by Hagan who are "denying states to do the things we want to do."
Hagan criticized Tillis for using taxpayer money on outside attorneys to keeping fighting a case that appeals courts have already ruled on, adding that no one should be able to tell others who they can love or marry.
She used the Common Core question to return to a common refrain of her campaign by attacking Tillis' record on education spending. He responded by noting that most fact-checks found the allegation that the General Assembly cut education spending by $500 million to be false and added that lawmakers want to give teachers another hefty raise next year on top of the average 7 percent they included in this year's budget. Hagan closed the conversation by noting that North Carolina now ranks 48th nationally in per-student spending.
As in their first debate a month ago, the two candidates asked each other questions.
Tillis asked Hagan which of her votes on Obama-backed policies does she most regret and why she has missed so many meetings of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She didn't offer any regrets, said she's fully briefed on issues that come before the committee and noted that Tillis was frequently absent from House floor sessions during last summer's legislative session while he was out raising money for his campaign.
Hagan asked Tillis why he doesn't support an equal pay for women bill and legislation that would allow college graduates to refinance their student loan debt. He called both regulatory responses that shift the focus away from Congress working to improve the U.S. economy by lowering taxes and cutting red tape.
After the debate, Hagan said Tillis should stop trying to make the Senate race a referendum on Obama.
"The president is not on the ballot. This race is about who’s going to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate," she said.
Meanwhile, Tillis tried to cut through Hagan's lead among female voters, saying he's focused on creating jobs for women while she's interested only in bureaucratic solutions.
"I get rattled when I think about my daughter and I think about Sen. Hagan thinking that I’m not concerned with the fact that women in some instances are making less than men just because employers are making the wrong decisions," he said. "We need to cut through the rhetoric and Sen. Hagan’s talking points and talk about facts. We’re putting women back to work."
The debate was the candidates' final one-to-one meeting before the Nov. 4 general election. On Thursday, Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh will join Tillis and Hagan for a debate in Wilmington.