Hagan tried to steer the discussion back toward education, but the questions focused elsewhere: Was she hypocritical to complain about outside-group money when some of them were backing her candidacy? Why was she not attending the debate later that night? And had she reversed herself last week when she said she supported a limited travel ban to Ebola-stricken countries?
"From the very, very beginning," Hagan said, "I said a travel ban could be part…"
A reporter cut her off. "Could or should be?"
"You know, I said it could be part of a broader strategy," she continued. "And that's exactly where we are."
Journalists rarely ask the questions politicians want, no matter the situation. But the exchange neatly captured a shifting dynamic in North Carolina: Since the start of October, the issues at the contest's forefront have moved from the local matters preferred by Team Hagan to the national topics, Ebola and ISIS, that have benefitted Republican candidates nationwide. And it's created a sense that Tillis, whose own campaign has become a punching bag for Republicans critical of its efforts, could sneak through to a last-minute victory.
Interviews with nearly a dozen top Republican and Democratic operatives revealed most of them share two basic assessments of the race. For about a six-month stretch starting in April, thanks mostly to her own campaign's superior efforts, just about everything went right for Kay Hagan. And still, she might lose.
"If she loses, it's because of the national environment," said Thomas Mills, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state. "And if Hagan wins, it's because of her campaign."
The terrain has morphed in North Carolina; now it's up to Hagan and her campaign to prove they can hold on to the lead for another 10 days.
* * *
Thom Tillis skips steps when he walks up stairs. He had just left a large room on the first floor of the state GOP headquarters, where he and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus last Saturday had told a few dozen dedicated supporters that North Carolina was "ground zero" for regaining the Senate majority. The top-ranking state House Republican, now sitting in a second-floor boardroom, explains to me that he normally does mountain-biking to stay in shape but has had to cut back because of the busy-ness of a Senate campaign—hence, the stair-skipping.
The 54-year-old looks like a political operative—fit, with closely trimmed white hair and a sports coat paired with jeans—and he talks like one, too. He's the only Republican candidate in recent memory to declare that he wants to run the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and most who have watched his meteoric rise in the state legislature (he was first elected there in only 2006) describe him as a political animal.
So it's confusing that the story of his campaign would be one of strategic missteps, of struggling to build a cohesive case against his opponent. Only the last-month intrusion of the national political climate has given his candidacy hope.