WILSON, N.C. — Thom Tillis examined the 720-pound bale of golden tobacco and listened as the farm's owner explained just how many tax dollars this one bale would produce for the federal government.
"Just for that bale: $23,000 — the government is more dependent on tobacco than we are. If there's ever been a product that's over-taxed this is it," Jerome Vick explained to Tillis. "It's bought a lot of school clothes and it's done a lot of things for things for this country. We fought the Revolutionary War and used tobacco for collateral, so my contention is this country belongs to tobacco farmers."
Tillis nodded quietly as Vick went on: he hates the estate tax; government regulation is stifling his business; it's increasingly difficult to export certain crops.
"We worked hard for what we got and we don't want the tax man taking it away from us," he said.
"I don't either," Tillis replied. "What we need to do is not complex and it shouldn't be difficult we just need people that are willing to do it."
It may not be complex, but in just his second full week on the campaign trail, Tillis spent a lot of time explaining things.
He's been mostly absent from the campaign trail so far. (Tillis serves as speaker of North Carolina's House and that role, due to an unexpectedly long state legislative session, kept him busy.)
Filling the void: millions in television ads, which have been running for months. Democrats and Republicans (as well as outside groups) have committed major sums to North Carolina's air war. The race has been framed as a fight between an unpopular statehouse in Raleigh that Tillis ran, and an unpopular Democratic Senate where incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan serves.
Since neither candidate has a particularly forceful personality, both sides have framed the other as a creature of habit.
"We're the state of Jesse Helms and John Edwards — larger than life personalities," said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative North Carolina think tank. "In 2014, what you've got is typical Democratic incumbent senator and you've got a typical Republican candidate in a state where the GOP has been rising. They do not yet have a strong brand identities in the public's mind."
The many attacks from Democrats are easily woven into 30-second sound bites: Tillis cut education, doesn't support a federal minimum wage, wouldn't have supported the Farm Bill, didn't extend long term unemployment insurance, and didn't expand Medicaid. The GOP's message is more concise: Hagan has been a rubber stamp for Obama, who remains incredibly unpopular in the state.
On the trail Saturday, at several farms owned by supporters and at lunch and breakfast with local Republicans, Tillis seemed to understand a lot more explaining lays ahead. With few votes actually up for grabs, both campaigns have devoted their time to intense get-out-the-vote efforts. But for the truly undecided, Tillis said he knows he needs to make a concerted effort to explain his policies and positions.
"I think [there] are the kinds of things that you do, tough decisions that sometimes the citizens don't even understand, but you have the courage to make that decision because you believe in the principle of it and you know it's going to be a good thing for North Carolina," he told supporters at the Pitt County GOP headquarters. "That's exactly what I've done. We know if we inform the voter, we win."
And on the trail, Tillis says he's proud of his record.
"One of the things Kay Hagan has a problem with is recognizing the great progress we've made over the last three and a half years," he said.
But translating his view of success won't always be easy: One woman at Saturday's Republican field office event asked Tillis to explain why veteran teachers didn't get a raise in a recently passed teacher-pay bill. Callers to the office were asking, she said, and she needed to know what to tell them. Tillis launched into a detailed rationale: Veteran teachers had been getting raises for years, he said, while newer teachers' pay had been frozen. The raises were higher for newer teachers in order to be fair, he said.
"It's good sound business to treat all the teachers fairly and I think it's a good story to tell," he said. "But they are going use the tired old arguments of war on education and war on women and these other issues."
"More than anything else this points to the fact that when you are the incumbent and you are attacking your challenger, versus showcasing all the great things you've done for the last six years, there's only one reason for that: You haven't done anything."
The Hagan campaign rejected the idea she hasn't been able to get anything done for North Carolina; they pointed to a list of 13 amendments signed into law they say directly benefited the state. Hagan, they noted, was responsible for "killing an amendment that would have harmed North Carolina tobacco farmers."
"His rhetoric about working families is empty when you look at the policies he has pushed that have only made it harder for working families to get ahead - refusing to raise the minimum wage, cutting education and overcrowding classrooms, rejecting health care for 500,000 people and killing an equal pay bill that would help women in the workplace and their families," said Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner. "That's not the record of someone who is looking out for North Carolina's middle class and it's clear he is rigging the system against working families."
Her campaign has also hammered Tillis for overseeing the defunding of Planned Parenthood in the state, the passage of stricter abortion laws in the state, support for a personhood amendment that would ban some forms of birth control, and his support for the Supreme Court's ruling in the Hobby Lobby case. The "war on women" messaging will likely only increase as polling continues to show Hagan with a significant lead among women voters.
Tillis has recently come out with one counter for that attack: He became the latest Republican Senate candidate to endorse the purchase of over-the-counter oral contraceptives — another thing he was ready to try and explain. It's a "policy endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists," he argued, that could "probably reduce the cost of some of these things by literally half." He told BuzzFeed News he's always held the position that the pill should be available over the counter. "I'm talking about it now because I'm running for an office where it is relevant."
And he had a lot more opinions to share. On the minimum wage, Tillis explained — several times on Saturday — that he feels the issue should be left to the states, and took swipes at Hagan's wealth and upbringing.
"One of the biggest disagreements between Sen. Hagan and I — I don't believe we should be building an economy that's founded on making ends meet on minimum wage. It's impossible, it's a stepping stone. I worked on minimum wage, I didn't go to college out of school, I worked multiple jobs and it's probably not something Sen. Hagan's not had to worry about because we grew up in very different life circumstances," he said.
He would not say whether North Carolina's minimum wage should be increased, but said the decision should be left up to the leaders of the next legislature and the governor.
On the farm bill? Tillis says it didn't do enough for the farmers and was overly focused on food assistance and welfare programs.
On his decision not extend unemployment insurance? Tillis says the unemployment rate dropped significantly afterwards and the state's debt has steadily decreased.
There's an old adage in politics that says if you are explaining you are losing but the Republican has an answer for that, too.
"Change while sometimes good is difficult to absorb, I think that a part of it is just having to see the results," he told BuzzFeed News. "We were the only state to make the decision to not extend long-term unemployment benefits. There were a lot of concerns expressed at the time but shortly after that we started seeing the unemployment rate go down. We also started seeing the revenue we needed to start paying down our debt... When people understand that, then they get why some of the dramatic changes were needed."
This is just the beginning: Tillis and Hagan are statistically tied, and he's only just started campaigning. His supporters have faith in his ability to woo undecided voters. They argue the closeness of the race is a good sign and the Tillis campaign will only gain momentum in the weeks ahead of the election.
"On our side of things, things are changing rapidly," said state senator Buck Newton. "People are very excited about Thom. Races around here don't typically start this early. Everybody's busy here putting in tobacco. Everybody's busy getting back to school. The race is really just starting in a lot of people's minds."
Kate Nocera is the DC Bureau Chief for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.
Contact Kate Nocera at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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