The race between Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and her challenger, Republican state Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, is one of the most closely watched in the country. That’s because Republicans need to win only six seats in the U.S. Senate to gain a majority.
The most recent polls put Hagan slightly ahead. Groups rooting for Hagan are trying to get more women to the polls this year.
About an hour and a half before the first debate between Hagan and Tillis took place earlier this month, a number of different protest groups lined the road on the way to the venue where the event was held.
Planned Parenthood organized the loudest and largest group, comprised of protesters holding blue and white Hagan signs. Melissa Reed is a Vice President for Planned Parenthood Health Systems. She oversees health policy for the group in four states- including this one.
"The U.S. Senate is Planned Parenthood’s top priority this year, and it is really focused on the Kay Hagan race," said Reed.
Across the country, Planned Parenthood and other Democratic-leaning groups are doing their best to wield influence in close races, including this one in North Carolina. Reed says her group is committed to working as hard as it can until November 4th:
"Women are going to be watching every step of the way in this election, and that means Planned Parenthood votes will be there. We’ve made 84,000 phone calls in North Carolina and we’ve knocked on 8,000 doors. And we will continue to do that up until Election Day."
Planned Parenthood is spending $3 million dollars to get out the vote in North Carolina. And other groups, including the Democratic National Committee, are especially focused on unmarried women in this midterm election year.
Unmarried women skew Democratic. And they’re typically more concerned about issues like education and reproductive rights.
"They are very powerful in terms of North Carolina," says Page Gardner, the President and CEO of the Voter Participation Center, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that seeks to get more Americans to vote. She says unmarried women are a powerful force nationally.
"They are 27 percent of the eligible voting population," says Gardner. "And they can make a difference in every race like the Senate race. And yes, the question is who comes to the polls on election day, and when unmarried women show up, of course they have the power to determine an election."
That’s what happened in Virginia last year, when Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe defeated his opponent, Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says unmarried women got Governor McAuliffe elected:
"He actually on election day lost married women, but he won unmarried women by a whopping 42 points net," Lake says. "And that included white single women from particularly Northern Virginia who are pro-choice oriented, and it included African-American women. So even against a right-winger like Cuccinelli, it took the women’s vote and the women’s turnout to really win that race."
In general, married women tend to vote more conservatively than their unmarried counterparts.
But Lake says there’s another important demographic that includes those she calls the “waitress moms.” They’re unaffiliated voters who are especially concerned about education and pocketbook issues. Republican strategist Carter Wrenn says they’re typical swing voters who politicians are hungry to court. He thinks that many swing voters are ambivalent about both Hagan and Tillis and haven’t made up their minds.
"And if the ambivalence continues and they split, then Hagan will probably win the election," says Wrenn. "What Tillis has to do is to find a way to overcome that ambivalence. Of course, Hagan would like to do the same thing and she’s trying. But her essential strategy has been to create the ambivalence. Because if the swing voters split, I win."
Are Women Aware Of Their Power?
Many independent women are aware of the role they can play in this election. Terry Scott, who works at a medical publishing company, was waiting to catch a bus at the Durham transit station the other day.
"I’m registered as unaffiliated," said Scott. "So I’m sure they love me, 'cause I could go either way."
Scott says before she decides who to vote for, she wants to do a little research. She’s concerned about natural gas fracking. A few steps away, Duke senior Raven Holbrooks says she hasn’t been following the race. But Holbrooks, who’s unaffiliated, says she thinks she will go to the polls this year:
"I probably will. I probably will have to do a little research on the actual race, and then I’ll make a decision and vote."
Holbrooks says it feels good to know that whatever choice she makes, her vote could make a difference in what looks to be a very close race.