CNN Poll: In North Carolina Senate race, Libertarian could be spoiler

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Sen. Kay Hagan and U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis.

In one of the most closely-watched Senate races of the year, incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina holds a narrow three-point advantage over her Republican challenger, according to a new CNN/ORC International survey.

But the poll indicates that Thom Tillis, the GOP nominee, may be falling behind Hagan because a Libertarian candidate could be siphoning off Republican votes.

Hagan edges Tillis, 46%-43%, while Libertarian Sean Haugh has support from 7% likely voters, according to the poll.

The three-point gap between Tillis and Hagan, however, is well within the poll’s sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points among likely voters, meaning the candidates are about even.

The race is one of eight Senate contests that CNN rates as “up for grabs” this fall. As Republicans seek to retake the Senate majority, they consider North Carolina one of their best chances to pick up a Democratic seat.

Since Hagan was first elected in 2008, North Carolina has transitioned from somewhat of a purple state to solid red territory. Republicans took the governorship and seized both houses in the state Legislature, and North Carolina was one of two states that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but Mitt Romney in 2012.

Hagan’s favorable rating is 46%, indicating that everyone who likes her is going to vote for her. But Tillis gets a 47% favorable rating among likely voters, yet only 43% of the vote.

“That suggests that there are voters who would probably choose Tillis in a two-way race but aren’t going to vote for him in a three-way contest,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

While Haugh only has the backing of 7% of voters, his presence in the race could be hugely influential if Tillis ends up losing to Hagan by just a few percentage points.

President Barack Obama’s low approval rate in North Carolina — 42% — has forced Hagan to keep some distance from the President. When he came to her state last month to speak to the American Legion convention in Charlotte, for example, she publicly criticized him and his administration’s handling of the Veterans Affairs scandal this summer.

Emily’s List, a political action committee that backs female Democratic candidates, has spent millions to support Hagan and make the debate over equal pay a big issue in the race.

The equal pay issue is one that Democrats nationwide believe will help bolster their general lead among women voters. According to the CNN/ORC poll, Hagan has a seven-point advantage among women, while Tillis has a six-point margin among men.

Outside spending groups have helped make the North Carolina battle the most expensive Senate race this year, with nearly $44 million spent by candidates and third parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Tillis, the North Carolina House Speaker, has seen a big turnout in support from high-profile Republicans, including Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Sen. Rand Paul will campaign for Tillis next week.

According to the poll, Hagan wins among likely voters with higher incomes, while Tillis does better among lower-income voters.

“That may be explained by the way wealth is spread across the state — Hagan does best in the Charlotte area and around the Raleigh-Durham Triangle, the two geographical areas with a large share of higher-income voters in North Carolina,” Holland said.

The poll was conducted for CNN by ORC International by telephone with 1,010 adult Americans on September 22-25.