CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Over the summer and into the fall, while polls showed other Senate Democrats in swing states like Colorado and Iowa falling behind their GOP challengers, incumbent North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan had consistently clung to a small lead.
In the end, Hagan lost by less than two points, defeated 48.8 percent - 47.3 percent by her Republican opponent Thom Tillis, Speaker of the GOP-led N.C. House.
Here are three reasons Democratic voter turnout missed the mark on election night:
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(1) Black voters turned out at record levels, but their votes weren't enough.
After the GOP seized control of the North Carolina legislature in 2010, and won the Governor's mansion in 2012, they pushed through the nation's most restrictive new voting laws. Experts described them as the worst voter suppression measures passed by any state since the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965.
Besides mandating unreasonably strict Voter ID provisions (no student ID's, no public employee ID's) and cutting one week of early voting, they repealed several laws designed to make voting easier and more convenient for citizens that had been in place for years. Same-day voter registration during early voting and out-of-precinct voting on election day were both abolished. These efforts to block the vote may have provided Tillis with his margin of victory, and have been universally recognized as a blatant attempt to make it more difficult for core Democratic constituencies to cast ballots, including African-Americans, low income voters, and students.
In response, North Carolina's black community and progressive allies organized to fight back. One of the largest ever efforts to mobilize black voters in North Carolina in a non-presidential year was launched, spearheaded by Democrats, voting rights groups, and the state NAACP. And even with President Obama not on the ballot, African-American voters still turned out for Kay Hagan.
In Durham County, a bastion of black and white liberal voters in North Carolina, Hagan received 70,601 votes, or 76.6 percent of the votes cast. Mecklenburg County is home to Charlotte, the state's largest city, and another source of black voting strength. Democrats and independent voters outnumber Republicans there by 3-1. Hagan got 156,533 votes in Mecklenburg, or 59.2 percent to Tillis' 38.1 percent.
Durham and Mecklenburg counties alone delivered 50,000 more votes for Hagan than were cast there for Democratic nominee for Senate Elaine Marshall in 2010.
Exit polls showed black voters were 21 percent of the North Carolina electorate this year, which equaled their numbers in 2008, when Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina, and only slightly down from 23 percent in 2012. Fully 96 percent of them chose Hagan.
But their numbers fell short, because:
Hagan got just 33 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls, a drop from the 39 percent she received in 2008 when she was first elected to the Senate. That year, Hagan won white voters age 18-29 by a margin of 60 percent - 36 percent, but in 2014, they voted for Republican Thom Tillis by 56 percent - 32 percent. White voters who didn't attend college made up 35 percent of the electorate, and they backed Tillis by a crushing 69 percent - 25 percent.
Through most of the summer, Hagan maintained a small lead in the polls by hitting Tillis hard for his role in cutting the state's education budget. In early October, Tillis threw everything he had at Hagan in a bid to improve his poll numbers among white voters. He began attacking her over foreign policy, exploiting voters' fears about the Islamic State's military gains in Iraq and Syria and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He also tied her to a phony controversy over stimulus grants that went to a company co-owned by her husband.
Tillis started gaining traction with ads that called Hagan out for missing an Armed Services Committee hearing back in February where the Islamic State was discussed. Karl Rove's dark money group Crossroads GPS followed suit. One featured the mother of a Marine who told viewers, "It makes me so mad to see how the President's weakness has allowed the Islamic State to grow. And Senator Hagan? She just goes right along with him." The ad closed with a hard-hitting plea: "We can't let our kids die in vain. We have to change our Senator."
In a state with a strong military presence, polls showed the message had an impact. Support for Tillis ticked slightly upwards. Exit polls revealed the 16 percent of N.C. voters who were veterans chose Tillis over Hagan by 55 percent - 43 percent. The 11 percent of voters who thought foreign policy was the nation's top issue went with Tillis by a 68 percent - 31 percent margin.
The Tillis campaign tried to spin their win as due to their targeting of "GOP areas where their voters turned out in past elections but they felt more could vote." Tillis' chief campaign strategist Paul Shumaker "pointed to places such as Rowan, Cabarrus and Catawba counties."
Actually, in these three heavily white counties, Tillis received 1500 less votes than N.C.'s senior Republican Senator Richard Burr in 2010, and nearly 7500 more votes were cast for Hagan than for Burr's challenger Elaine Marshall.
The areas supposedly key to Tillis' victory instead illustrate how statewide, Tillis did worse than the last Republican to win a Senate race in a midterm election by about 35,000 votes, and Hagan got nearly a quarter million more votes than the last unsuccessful Democratic Senate candidate. Tillis didn't turn out more white voters than in 2010, but he benefited because too few white Democrats were fired up enough about Kay Hagan to vote this year.
(3) Not enough young voters turned out.
All 18-29 year-olds backed Hagan 53 percent - 39 percent, but they only made up 12 percent of voters, down from 16 percent in 2012. Voter support for Tillis roughly increased with age levels, and senior citizens age 65 and older favored him by a margin of 57 percent - 42 percent. Senior voters made up 23 percent of the electorate, with nearly twice as many casting ballots as 18-29 year-olds.
One reason for such low turnout by young voters was the state's new restrictive voting laws. As part of their strategy to suppress the Democratic vote, N.C. Republicans made special efforts to discourage students from voting. Under the new Voter ID statute, college student ID's are unacceptable. Students now need a North Carolina driver's license or special state-issued ID in order to vote, which created huge obstacles to participation by out-of-state students. Republican-controlled local election boards in counties with large universities moved early voting sites off campuses and pushed through other changes that made it harder for students to get to the polls.
The state's abolition of same-day registration during early voting left untold numbers of people unable to vote simply because they had moved within N.C. since the last time they voted. They were turned away from the polls when they went to update their addresses during early voting, a practice that had been allowed for years before this election.
This deliberate attempt to make it harder to vote disproportionately affected young people, students and non-students alike, because they move more often. But it also disenfranchised older citizens like disabled veteran Bryan McGowan, who served 22 years in the Marine Corps, including four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was prevented from voting on October 23 in Western North Carolina.
What happened this year to Bryan and other N.C. voters like him is a mockery of democracy. But the GOP can't be sure of winning races any other way. And their attempts to fix the game further in their favor in North Carolina have now led to a truly unfortunate election result for America.
Erik Ose is a writer and political activist who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and micro-blogs at latestoutrage on Twitter. He is the author of When Harvey Met Jesse: Attack Ads of the 1990 Gantt-Helms U.S. Senate Race in North Carolina, (more...)