The News & Observer asked several political analysts to watch the debate and share their thoughts about the performance of Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and challengers Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis and Libertarian Sean Hough. Here is what they had to say:
Craig M. Burnett, assistant professor in the Public and International Affairs Department at UNC Wilmington
Both Hagan and Tillis – who largely did not address Libertarian Sean Haugh – are looking to link each other to their own records, hoping that voters will focus on their perceived shortcomings. Most of the debate’s talking points matched the advertisements.
Tillis, in particular, seems to want to reinforce his argument that Hagan is weak on foreign policy and is a rubber stamp for President Obama. Hagan, by contrast, is quite comfortable attacking Tillis’ education policy, which, historically, has been a bipartisan issue in North Carolina.
One of the most effective paths of attack for challengers is the economy. Unfortunately for Tillis, this option is largely not available as the economy overall has improved and he, personally, must share some of the responsibility as a public figure in North Carolina. It’s unlikely that other issues, including ISIS, have the potential to impact and motivate voters in the same way.
This debate, similar to the previous two, is unlikely to change the minds of most individuals. That’s likely good news for Hagan.
Andrew Taylor, NCSU political science professor
There is still clearly a great deal of friction between Hagan and Tillis. But the conflict between them has taken on a predictable feel and the talking points are becoming cliches. Add to that the more intimate setting around the desk and Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh’s calming influence and I thought the debate was not quite as feisty. Like the previous two debates it will do little to move the needle, an outcome made even more likely by the relatively few North Carolinians who watched the event.
Michael Bitzer, Catawba College political science professor
Well, pretty much what we expected, as it was another round of sharp elbows and continued talking points from both Hagan and Tillis. I thought Speaker Tillis was more aggressive than he was on Tuesday night, but Senator Hagan seemed to keep her cool and returned fire just as much as she did Tuesday.
The interesting dynamic for the folks watching was Sean Haugh, who seemed to present both social and economic libertarianism that Democratic and Republican supporters would find appealing. In the end, Haugh may end up drawing enough votes to allow the ultimate winner to claim victory with less than 50 percent of the vote.
David McLennan, Meredith College political science professor
Thom Tillis and Kay Hagan repeated many of the attack lines they used in the two previous debates, but with more animosity than in Tuesday night’s debate. Voters who watched the debate were fortunate that Libertarian Sean Haugh was included because he broke up the relentless attack lines. I don’t think public opinion shifted as a result of the debate, except that Haugh may have created the possibility that neither Hagan nor Tillis reaches 50 percent on Nov. 4.
Aaron S. King, assistant professor political science UNC Wilmington
The inclusion of Libertarian Sean Haugh brought a new dynamic to the usual two-sided debate; however, Hagan and Tillis went through the hour paying little attention to him. Not surprisingly, political parties and major party candidates prefer when third party candidates remain on the sidelines during debates.
In the eyes of many voters, most of the important political issues have two sides, and the inclusion of a third-party candidate may actually result in confusion. This is especially true as third-party candidates sometimes take positions closer to Democrats and sometimes closer to Republicans.
It is worth pointing out that the number of viewers for tonight’s debate was certainly only a fraction of the eligible voting population across the state.
Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The tone and dynamic of the debate specifically between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis was extremely negative. ... Libertarian Sean Haugh probably came across best in tonight’s debate because he escaped the crossfire of the two major candidates.
Thom Tillis made a major error in his concluding remarks by accusing Sen. Hagan of being part of the Republican establishment. Sean Haugh displayed catlike reflexes that matched his cat-covered tie to point out he is similarly confused by the policy differences between the Republican and Democratic parties.
Mr. Haugh mentioned in his concluding remarks that he and Thom Tillis agreed on a few positions during tonight’s debate, including major issues like the minimum wage. In a very close election that could determine the balance of the Senate, it remains unclear how much the presence of this third-party candidate and his performance in tonight’s debate will ultimately impact the outcome of the race.