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Republicans and are threatening to take the majority in the U.S. Senate from the Democrats this November. And North Carolina is one of the states in play. The incumbent is Democrat Kay Hagan. Her challenger, Republican speaker of the North Carolina House, Thom Tillis. And both candidates hope to capitalize on a backlash. Hagan is calling on voters to punish Tillis for unpopular state laws. Tillis is trying to turn voter anger with President Obama against Hagan. NPR's Ailsa Chang reports.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: You expect it in elections. Candidates run against each other's record. But in purplish North Carolina Democratic Senator Kay Hagan is hoping she has some seriously unique fodder. Her challenger Tom Tillis is speaker of the North Carolina House, one of the guys at the helm when Republicans took over the State House, Senate and Governor's office in 2012. The first time in more than a century. And last year they went on a historic lawmaking binge.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: After North Carolina has enacted some of the toughest voter ID laws in the country now, at least three civil rights groups and the Justice Department are threatening lawsuits over what they claim is discrimination.
CHANG: Republicans also slashed unemployment benefits, cut taxes, passed new abortion restrictions and allowed concealed guns in bars and restaurants. Protests called Moral Mondays erupted across the state.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And the man in the Governor's Mansion, when will they stop?
CHANG: Gerald Silver was arrested at one of those rallies. He's the pastor at Freedom Temple Church in West Raleigh.
GERALD SILVER: There's always been this undercurrent in North Carolina of wanting to return back to those days of Jim Crow. But they didn't have the political means to do it.
CHANG: Until now, Silver says. And Hagan is hoping to ride this anger to victory. This feeling that a vote for Tillis is a vote to return to North Carolina's uncomfortable past.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Do you all want to eat dessert? We've got peach and apple cobbler.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Peach.
CHANG: Head west an hour to a barbecue joint in Greensboro called Stameyâs and you'll hear a similar tone from the other side.
WAYNE NUNN: I think she's a liberal. I think she aligns herself - and her voting record - with Obama and his agenda.
CHANG: Wayne Nunn is saying exactly what Tom Tillis is pushing. That Hagan is an Obama clone. While she's counting on a backlash against a state government that's veered too far right, Tillis is counting on a backlash against an unpopular president. It's the contest of - what do people hate more, Raleigh or Washington? When it comes to Obama, don't even get Jimmy Piper started.
JIMMY PIPER: He's incompetent to start with. He's a liar.
CHANG: His wife Margaret nudges him from across the table.
MARGARET PIPER: Not so loud.
J. PIPER: He's just literally ruining this country. He's a socialist.
CHANG: And Piper says, Hagan's no different. She supports giving everything away to people who just need to work harder. He remembers struggling his way from the bottom up in the metalworking industry.
J. PIPER: I was poor, dead poor. Live-dead poor. It's what we did when we're growing up. But people now are led to believe you don't have to do that. We the government's going to take care of you.
CHANG: The voters like Jimmy Piper were probably always out of reach for Hagan. She's got her sights set on a block of centrist voters who may be key to winning a state that voted for President Obama in 2008 and then Mitt Romney four years later.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is my daughter, Victoria.
SENATOR KAY HAGAN: Hi, Victoria. Now what grade are you going into?
HAGAN: And when does school start for you?
VICTORIA: Two weeks.
HAGAN: I'll tell you, everything I do is for your future.
CHANG: Hagan's strategy for getting centrist voters is to keep the focus on state government issues, like education.
HAGAN: In Raleigh Speaker Tillis slashed $500 million from public education funding. He ended a tax break to help families save for college for their kids.
CHANG: So while each candidate is calling the other the extremist - Hagan says, she's right down the middle.
HAGAN: National Journal has ranked me the most moderate senator in the nation.
CHANG: And you're proud of that?
HAGAN: I am. Oh, definitely. It shows I can work across the aisle. I am not there just butting heads, trying to keep this good luck growing. I am there to get constructive action taken and make a difference.
CHANG: And that aisle Hagan talks about could get narrower if she and other Democrats from conservative states lose. Ailsa Chang, NPR news.
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