10/22/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2014

De-Nationalizing an Election: Political Advertising in the Tillis-Hagan N.C. Senate Race

Almost three and a half decades ago a virtual unknown - John East - upended the popular incumbent - Robert Morgan - in the North Carolina senate race; a contest decided largely by one political commercial, the menacing marching of "Marxist Nicaraguans" continually crossing television screens. The 1980 election was one of several North Carolina Senate contests to follow decided by television political advertising.

As part of my academic studies, I have closely monitored the North Carolina Senate television advertising campaigns since 1980, a gamut of styles from the televised revivifications of Jesse Helms in 1984 to the humdrum campaign of Jim Broyhill and Terry Sanford in 1986. Across these decades, senate advertising has become more and more "nationalized" where the dominant issues look like every other senate race in the country.

Part of this nationalization results from themes dictated by Senate Campaign Committees or, more and more often, the expenditures of independent groups, all of whom seem to be singing from the same hymnal, driving wedge issues that brand the Party or mobilize symbols from the right and left. Advertisements from Colorado to New Hampshire are often exact replicas, changing the candidate names but little else.

The 2014 North Carolina Senate race has been largely conducted on the airwaves. Advertisements dominating the news hours - one after the other - and infiltrating cable across the time spectrum; some estimates expect nearly 10,000 ads, perhaps $100 million in spending. While the Kay Hagan-Thom Tillis contest reflects "national matters" it has also interrupted by the unashamed hijacking of external actors. The North Carolina election advertising has centered on a "state/local" issue of education.

By my count, more than 25 education specific ads have been shown in the North Carolina contest, many with sustained buys. The focus on education is so robust that national and state associations, like Progress North Carolina and Carolina Rising PAC, joined the education chorus. Senators pay lip service to education, but state levels of financial support for schools is not typically the nub of an election. The North Carolina race appears to be a de-nationalization of a classic senate race.

A closer reading of the education ads, however, suggests they are not fully about education. Most North Carolina voters favor education to be left in local hands, hardly the ambit of the U.S. Senate. Education commercials are less about education and more a placeholder for larger political narratives.

Hagan's advertisements attack Tillis (and Tillis' rebuttals) and are largely populated by women narrators and narratives. Tillis becomes the embodiment of the Democrat's allegations of a "War on Women." Likewise, pinpointing the nexus locally emphasizes the "failed legislative session" with speaker Tillis wearing that mantel squarely. In Hagan's commercial "Frances," the testimonial avows that "Thom Tillis has cut millions in education in North Carolina. He's passing bills in the middle of the night, which in my estimation is not very ethical."

Last week, the Tillis campaign and outside actors have moved to shift the debate away from education to ISIS and adjoined threats, arguing "the world is a very dangerous place, be scared, very scared." Hagan's missed hearings and aggregation with a "submissive" Obama are offered as a dangerous world against which leadership is measured.

How persuasive the interruption from education becomes, beyond ideological allies already in the fold, will likely not be known until the election. Hagan has fought back with outrage in her recent advertisement "Vain," where she resolutely shares "Speaker Tillis should be ashamed for running an ad that I would let our soldiers die in vain... North Carolina's military family is my family..." Her indignity echoes a 2008 answer to Dole's now famous commercial "Godless Americans," where Hagan decreed in her response commercial "False Witness, "Elizabeth Dole's attacks on my Christian faith are offensive... I believe in God, I taught Sunday School..."

And so the move to re-nationalize the North Carolina Senate advertising campaign.