North Carolina is changing as fast as any state in the country, and it's going through some political growing pains.
On our 'Meet the Voters' trip, I talked with folks here to better understand what voters care the most about and how incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan still appears to be holding the line as other Democrats struggle more in this tough political climate.
Here are my three takeaways from my swing through the Tar Heel State:
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1) Hagan's playing offense. That's why she could win.
While most of her Democratic colleagues have spent their energy deflecting attacks about Obama, Hagan is hammering away at Republican Thom Tillis on an issue that motivates a lot of people in this state: education. Voters are upset with state GOP lawmakers, whom Democrats argue have hindered efforts to build the infrastructure this fast-growing state needs to educate its children. Tillis, as the Speaker of the North Carolina House, is an obvious target, and Hagan has been relentless at elevating local issues. For every "You voted with Obama 96 percent of the time" attack, she's swinging back on Raleigh's dysfunction. It's a get-out-the-vote message that's proactive.
It appears that she's successfully made this race about a choice, not a referendum on the status quo. That's how incumbents win.
2) North Carolina is basically an even state, but it's not because there are lots of persuadable moderates.
In election years, states like Iowa, Colorado or Virginia are usually decided by a chunk of independent-minded swing voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum. Not so in North Carolina, where - like in polarized Wisconsin - the vast majority of voters are firmly stuck in their camps. Yes, the growth pattern in North Carolina definitely favors Democrats, with its urban population explosion and surge of minorities, but there's still a staunch conservative bloc that's not going anywhere anytime soon. This race is not about persuadables, in other words: it really is all about turnout.
3) This isn't the sixth state for Republicans. But it could be the seventh or eighth.
Because of Hagan's relatively strong campaign and Tillis' vulnerability on some state issues, it feels like -- all things being equal -- Democrats would pull out the win here. But if it suddenly feels like the election starts to break nationally in Republicans' favor very late in the game, Tillis could get the oomph he needs to overcome a good Hagan ground game. North Carolina, along with New Hampshire, would be the logical next wins for the GOP if Republicans start stacking up wins in other red-leaning states.
Put North Carolina in the wave column. If it stays blue, we could be in for a long night as the GOP grasps for the six seats they need to gain control of the Senate. But if they pick up a win here, it probably means that the wave is rolling in.