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In North Carolina, it's Tillis vs. Hagan – And Obama

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Incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s name may be the one on the ballot North Carolina’s Senate race, but her challenger, Republican Thom Tillis, is doing everything possible to try and make sure voters are thinking about someone else when they cast their votes – President Barack Obama.

When Hagan won her first Senate race in 2008, she rode to victory on the tailwinds of the Obama factor – an exciting new Democratic candidate that convinced high numbers of young people and African Americans to vote. Even more impressively, Obama won the state that year, making him the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

This year, Hagan is dealing with a different kind of Obama factor. President Obama’s popularity has plunged. He lost it to Mitt Romney in 2012, and according to the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, has a disapproval rating of 54%.

(North Carolina is one of the states NBC News will visit as part of our Meet the Voters bus tour.)

In the neck-and-neck race, Tillis has spent his time tying Hagan to an unpopular President Obama on issues ranging from immigration to Ebola to foreign policy.

The arm of the Republican Party in charge of electing Republicans to the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released an ad for the final week of the campaign using Hagan’s own voice to prove their argument.

“Voting 92% of the time with the president. Whether you support him or not doesn't work here in North Carolina. It is time for someone to reach across the party lines and finally get something done in this country,” Hagan says in the ad.

The North Carolina Senate race is one of nearly a dozen closely watched Senate races in the country. Its outcome could determine which party controls the Senate for the last two years of President Obama’s presidency.

Hagan, meanwhile, has been holding Tillis accountable for his own record as Speaker of the North Carolina House, especially on issues of education and women’s issues. With the backing of a Republican-led legislature, Tillis oversaw the passage of deep budget cuts, including to education. He also passed a strict anti-abortion law and rejected a federal expansion to Medicaid. Those bills, along with a reduction to unemployment benefits and a stringent voter ID law, have won the praise of many conservatives but have angered liberals and turned off some moderates.

“Our kids are back in school and it’s impossible to miss the effects of Speaker Thom Tillis’ $500 million in cuts to our local schools. Just look at our classrooms,” a woman said in Hagan’s recently released radio ad.

This race is set to be the most expensive in the country, with $100 million spent before it’s all over. The role of outside groups has been tremendous. While the candidates have spent $25 million, outside groups have pumped more than $50 million into the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

With all that money being spent, voters don’t really love either candidate. In the NBC poll, Hagan has a disapproval rating of 48 percent and Tillis’ is 44 percent. The Charlotte Observer on Sunday endorsed Hagan, but said Hagan has not been a stellar Senator. “For U.S. Senate, disappointment vs. danger,” is the headline of the endorsement.

The unknown factor in this race is third party candidate Sean Haugh. The Libertarian pizza delivery guy is polling at 7%, according to the NBC poll, an unusually high percentage for a third party candidate this close to Election Day. As a Libertarian, he is likely to pull votes from Tillis. But Tillis supporters are trying to change that. The American Future Fund, a conservative super PAC, released You Tube ads directed at young, liberal leaning voters – i.e. Hagan voters, encouraging them to vote for Haugh if they want “more weed, less war."

Follow the bus tour on Twitter #WhereIsChuck

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