Raleigh, N.C. — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis scored few points with female voters during his Wednesday night debate with Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by repeatedly calling her by her first name.
In political debates, opponents usually use each other's titles. Hagan, for example, consistently addressed Tillis as "Speaker Tillis" because of his position in the state House.
Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said the senator wasn't offended by Tillis calling her "Kay" instead of referring to her by her title, but she noticed others were.
"We saw some of the reaction on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook, from women voters who didn't quite appreciate the tone he took with the senator," Weiner said Thursday. "I think, more than the tone, North Carolinians are concerned about what his policies have done to middle-class families and women in North Carolina."
Still, some debate-watchers accused Tillis on social media of trying to belittle Hagan.
JoAnn Samuels Wood said on WRAL's Facebook page she didn't think much of either candidate. "But if I had to vote, I'd vote for Hagan due to Tillis' obvious disrespect by calling her 'Kay' in lieu of the Senator Hagan. I was raised to respect persons in position whether I agreed with them or not."
Tillis spokeswoman Meghan Burris said he usually calls people by their first names.
"Thom is not keen on pomp and formality and talks to everyone on a first-name basis," Burris said in a statement. "He prefers to have everyone call him Thom, but he will be happy to refer to her as 'Senator Hagan' if that is her preference."
Burris also pointed out that Tillis has known Hagan since they served in the General Assembly together in 2007-08 and that he said during the debate that he thinks Hagan is a good person.
Republicans nationally have had trouble wooing female voters, and polls show Tillis has a large gender gap to overcome in the Senate race.
North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene said that gap probably extends to the debate, too.
"I think most of women and men seeing the debate differently is the fact hat women are already more inclined to be Democratic and men inclined to be more Republican," Greene said, adding that he didn't find Tillis' references to Hagan to be condescending.
"I think he would have done that if it was John Hagan, not just Kay Hagan. That was my sense, but maybe that’s because I’m a white male,” he said.
Greene said he doesn't think the debate will change many minds, but he said the small percentage of undecided voters that both campaigns are chasing are disproportionately women.
"Everything suggests that this is going to be a particularly close election, and you don't want to take anybody for granted," he said.