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Column: Republicans Appear on Verge of Senate Control

Less than two weeks before U.S. congressional midterm elections, a Republican takeover of the Senate seems likely, though not certain. And we may not even know for sure on Election Day, November 4. Possible runoff elections in Louisiana in December and Georgia in January mean it’s possible that party control of the Senate may not be determined until early next year.

But what has become clear of late is that voter concerns about Ebola and the Islamic State are now roiling the final days of the midterm campaign, with Democrats and Republicans alike trying to tap into what opinion polls suggest are growing public anxieties and apprehensions.

The bad news for President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats at the moment is that voters don’t seem to be getting the assurances they are seeking with Ebola and ISIL dominating the headlines. Obama is at a new low in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, with 40 percent approval. And various surveys show Republican and conservative voters are more eager to vote in November than the president’s core liberal Democratic base.

The president’s low approval numbers are limiting his campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates. Obama has focused so far on relatively safe Democratic states like Maryland and Illinois, where he made appearances on behalf of Democrats running for governor.

Battle for Senate Intensifies

Party control of the Senate in the next Congress will be determined by a relatively small handful of states, many of which have voted Republican in recent years, where Democratic incumbents face strong challengers. One of those states is North Carolina, where a furious battle is underway for the seat now held by Democrat Kay Hagan.

Hagan’s Republican challenger is Thom Tillis, the speaker of the statehouse, and during a recent visit to North Carolina it was clear that the intensity is building on both sides. Prior to a recent debate, supporters of both candidates had literally taken to the streets near the debate TV studio in the Research Triangle area north of the state capital, Raleigh.

Among those supporting Hagan were activists from several women’s rights groups, including Melissa Reed, a vice president with Planned Parenthood Action Fund in North Carolina.

"This is probably the most important Senate race in the country," she said. "The control of the Senate is really going to come down to three seats, and North Carolina is at the very top."

Across the street, anti-abortion protestors did their best to compete, trying to whip up support for Tillis.

Tami Fitzgerald of the conservative Women Speak Out PAC used a bullhorn to rally anti-abortion activists. Fitzgerald said a strong turnout by social conservatives could swing the election to Tillis.

"We are working every day as hard we can to make sure Tillis wins," Fitzgerald said. "The polling has tightened a little bit in the last week and we are encouraged by that. It is still within the margin of error, so it is a matter of turnout and we are hoping to get our folks out to the polls and we are very confident that they will turn out."

Republicans make issue of Obama

Politico now reports Tillis appears to be gaining momentum in a race that is effectively tied. He is doing all he can to link Hagan to Obama, both in debates and in campaign ads on the airwaves. One says, "I'm determined to make it clear that people know that Senator Hagan has voted with President Obama 96 percent of the time."

Hagan, like many Democrats around the country, wants to run on her own record and is not shy about putting some political distance between herself and Obama. Tillis "wants to make this election about the president," she said. "The president is not on the ballot. This race is about who is going to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate."

Hagan now favors a temporary travel ban for non-U.S. citizens traveling from Ebola-affected West African countries, something Tillis and many other Republican candidates across the country also support.

Tillis is not alone among Republican candidates trying to nationalize the election. In recent weeks, Republican strategists have urged their candidates to highlight concerns about Ebola and the Islamic State in their campaigns and to keep the president a prominent political target in their ads and voter outreach.

In Raleigh, longtime local political analyst John Davis said the president is playing a role in the North Carolina race whether he wants to or not.

"And right now, his numbers are lousy," Davis said. "His job approval is in the low 40s overall. It is in the mid 30s on foreign policy. So this is a great time, if you are a Republican, to tie your opponent to the president. Lousy numbers, and it matters a lot in a midterm election year."

Davis also said Democrats face some huge challenges in getting their core supporters out to vote. "Good year for Republicans, midterm years historically. Terrible year for Democrats. Their traditional constituencies – African-Americans, single women, young people – just simply don’t turn out in big numbers."

In the end, Davis predicts Tillis is likely to pull out a victory, bolstering Republican hopes for a Senate majority.

One wild card in the North Carolina Senate race is Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh. He could be a factor in a close race even though he drew only single-digit support in recent public opinion polls. During a recent interview conducted before he had to report to his job delivering pizzas, Haugh spoke about why he joined the race.

"So just as an act of conscience, I personally wanted to make a statement in November that I want something other than more war and more debt," he said, "and I’m very gratified that apparently there is a large base of voters here in North Carolina who feel the same way and are being attracted to my campaign now."

Senate Democrats on the defensive

North Carolina is one of several states that voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and where incumbent Senate Democrats face strong Republican challengers. Republicans are already favored to take over Democratic seats in West Virginia and Montana and their candidates lead in Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana. More ominously for Democrats, Republican Senate candidates are doing better than expected in Colorado and Iowa, two states that Obama carried in both his presidential elections.

A Republican victory in North Carolina would probably signal a takeover of the Senate, said free market advocate Mitch Kokai of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. "Most people think that if they are going to do it, North Carolina is probably one that they are going to have to win because Hagan would be one of the easier targets."

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.