RALEIGH — Instead of being able to focus full-time on unseating Democratis U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Thom Tillis is spending a key stretch of his U.S. Senate campaign managing North Carolina’s protracted legislative session.
The House speaker, who won the Republican Senate nomination in May, has split his time negotiating a North Carolina government budget agreement and collecting dollars for his Senate campaign that’s been significantly outraised by Hagan so far. Tillis and other state lawmakers had expected this year’s General Assembly session would end by July 4.
Three weeks after that date, House and Senate leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory are still seeking a compromise on the budget and several other bills. The session’s end date remains uncertain.
With the start of absentee voting and the first televised debate about six weeks away, a legislative session that stretches into late July and August could cause more trouble for Tillis’ voter outreach and fundraising. Defeating the first-term Hagan is considered a key piece of the puzzle for Republicans to take control of the U.S. Senate in 2015.
“The longer it goes, the more it impacts his ability to campaign,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, adding “this could really be a challenge he can’t overcome.”
Tillis’ campaign and his colleagues say he’s been fully engaged in the legislative process while simultaneously leading a campaign. Tillis has been pressing state Senate leaders to agree to a budget with sizeable teacher pay raises without cutting additional teacher positions.
A budget deal “is priority No. 1,” Tillis said earlier this month, adding the campaign “has virtually no impact on anything that we’re doing here.”
But he’s also been away at times from the Legislative Building, where the negotiations are happening. He’s participating in a pair of Washington, D.C., fundraisers this week, including one Wednesday. The full House, which has met intermittently for the past three weeks, returns Thursday.
“It certainly makes for a busy, challenging schedule, but it’s something we’re managing,” Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said, adding that “we would have preferred to be out a couple of weeks ago.”
Tillis’ campaign entered July with about one-sixth as much cash as Hagan, who reported having $8.7 million in her campaign coffers. While Tillis had to spend much of the money he raised this year in a hard-fought eight-way Republican primary, Hagan breezed to the nomination.
“We’re confident we’re going to still have the resources necessary to win this race,” Shaw said in an interview. More than $12 million already has been spent by independent political groups supporting or opposing Tillis or Hagan, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Tillis repeatedly said that if he won the Republican primary he wouldn’t step down as speaker to place his full efforts on the race with Hagan. He was first elected speaker in 2011.
The session, which began in mid-May, gave him the chance to pass a significant teacher pay increase that would counter arguments from Democrats that public school funding was slashed under his watch. House and Senate Republicans are considering pay raises for teachers of between 6 and 8 percent on average.
But each day of the prolonged session gives Hagan and allies have more opportunity to criticize him for perceived ineffectiveness. They say Tillis and other Republicans wouldn’t be struggling to complete a budget if they had not passed a tax overhaul that lowered tax rates, siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars away from state government.
“The session continues because Speaker Tillis needs to do something to make up for his choice to give tax breaks to the wealthy over teacher pay raises last year,” Hagan campaign spokesman Chris Hayden said by email.
While time is dwindling, Tillis’ Republican allies say he still has time to become competitive with Hagan in fundraising.
GOP media strategist Marc Rotterman said the issues are still in Tillis’ favor and Hagan will be weighed down by President Barack Obama’s foreign policy decisions, the health care overhaul law and a sputtering economy.
“It’s July and he has time to make up ground,” Rotterman said, but still “it’s not advantageous for him to be in Raleigh when he should be out campaigning.”