By Renee Schoof – McClatchy

WASHINGTON The political gender gap is alive and well this year in the North Carolina Senate race.

Polls show that Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan has one of the biggest margins of support among women in any of the close contests that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. But her Republican opponent, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, is working hard to shrink Hagan’s advantage.

Both candidates at Tuesday’s debate made a point of declaring their support for the concerns of working women. Both campaigns are airing ads featuring women. Turnout is critical, and Hagan and Tillis are talking about the issues they believe will motivate women who support them to get out and vote.

“In the closing weeks of the race, both campaigns will focus on independent suburban women,” said conservative political ad maker Marc Rotterman of Raleigh. “In my view, they will be the key demographic that decides the Senate race.”

The gender gap also is big in other close Senate races around the country. Candidates from both parties are running ads aimed at women in the battleground states of Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, New Hampshire and Alaska.

In Kentucky, another high-profile contest, winning the female vote is the central strategy of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is trying to unseat Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. She portrays herself as a “strong Kentucky woman” and stresses economic populism as well. Still, her double-digit lead among women recently evaporated to a single point, and then in a later poll inched up to three points.

Hagan has had a much bigger cushion. An Elon University poll of North Carolina voters in September showed women splitting 52 percent for Hagan and 33 percent for Tillis among likely voters, a 19-point difference. Men support Tillis 50 percent to 38 percent for Hagan. Other polls also give Hagan a significant advantage with women voters.

A poll for Tillis and the Republicans showed he had more support than Hagan among white married women. But young and single women tend to favor Hagan.

Democratic candidates historically draw more votes from women than Republicans do, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

“The closer the race, the more powerful that difference could be,” she said.

But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole them as caring primarily about so-called women’s issues, such as abortion and contraception, Walsh said. The economy is their No. 1 concern: “People are worried about how to make ends meet.”

Both campaigns have enlisted allies to knock on doors and call women voters that they’ve targeted as likely supporters. Hagan has the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. Tillis has help from the North Carolina Values Campaign and Women Speak Out Political Action Committee, which announced on Tuesday it was spending $620,000 on an 11-day TV ad campaign against Hagan’s opposition to a ban on late-term abortion.

Women’s issues

During their second debate, Hagan challenged Tillis on economic issues specifically related to women. Women in North Carolina make 82 cents on the dollar compared with men, she said. She asked why he didn’t support an equal pay bill.

Tillis responded that women deserve the same pay as men, adding that his mother “worked hard and helped us make ends meet” and that his wife and daughter also worked. He argued that a strong economy would help women, and that additional regulations about equal pay weren’t necessary. Tillis called for enforcing existing law instead of “campaign gimmicks.”

Krista Boyd, a New York native who works in sales and who recently moved to Raleigh, said policies affecting education and the local economy rank as most important to her. She said she prefers Hagan.

“It’s important, the idea of building up North Carolina, and people moving here and businesses moving here,” Boyd said.

Susan Roberts, associate professor of political science at Davidson College outside of Charlotte, said polls show that compared with men, women are more likely to vote, more likely to vote on issues of education, more supportive of environmental legislation and more in favor of government assistance to the needy.

“The bottom line is, if things trend as they’re trending now, Kay Hagan, if she can get out women voters, will have a real leg up on Thom Tillis no matter what he does in his ads or in the next debate,” Roberts said.

To try to counter Hagan’s apparent momentum among women, the National Republican Senatorial Committee paid for a television ad that shows five women talking about the two candidates. One of them says: “It’s plain and simple. Kay Hagan talks. Thom Tillis does.”

Hagan counters that ad by saying she’s ahead with women because women don’t like what Tillis has done. In a recent meeting with The (Raleigh) News & Observer reporters and editors in Raleigh, she ticked off a list of his positions: eliminating state money for Planned Parenthood, which is the source of health screenings for many women; opposing a raise in the minimum wage (now $7.25 an hour); supporting the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision that allowed employers to deny birth control coverage through their insurance plans; and selling oral contraceptives over the counter.

In their first debate last month, Hagan said selling birth control pills over the counter would be fine, but that the plan Tillis proposed would make it more expensive because it wouldn’t be covered by insurance.

“Once again, women, we’re stuck holding the bill,” she said.

Hagan’s campaign also criticized Tillis for his failure to support a Democratic equal-pay bill and for the legislature’s 2013 restrictions on abortion. The abortion bill that passed the House would require stricter standards and limit insurance coverage for the procedure. Tillis voted for it. Republicans say the law makes abortions safer.

In 2009, Tillis was a co-sponsor of a state bill that would require doctors to warn women before they had an abortion about risks, including breast cancer. The American Cancer Society said there was no connection between the abortion and cancer. The bill did not advance.

Tillis focusing on security

Tillis, for his part, has been “focusing on issues important to women and all North Carolinians, like protecting our national security, implementing policies that create jobs, (and) controlling spending and debt so our children and grandchildren have the future they deserve,” said Meghan Burris, a campaign spokeswoman.

She said that Tillis believes that Congress could “easily make oral contraceptives required coverage for insurance companies,” and that the Affordable Care Act, which mandates contraceptive coverage at no additional cost to women, is “causing women to pay higher premiums and taxes.”

Penny Young Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian policy group, and its legislative action committee and political action committee, said members of her group would vote on the basis of their opposition to abortion.

“But overall, women look at things more holistically,” she said. “In North Carolina we know that the issues of jobs and the economy are very important to all women,” she said, and Tillis can win support if he talks about “the importance of a free market economy where jobs can expand.”

Sabrina Schaeffer, executive director of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, questioned whether Hagan’s polling with women would hold.

“As people get closer to Election Day and start thinking about the issues, and hopefully as Republicans are aggressively putting out an effective message, it doesn’t have to stay this way,” she said.

Hagan was trailing Tillis slightly among women voters in April and May, according to polls then. Her supporters say that after she started campaigning on pocketbook issues, including related concerns about education and health care, her support from women grew.

Tillis’ wife, Susan, has been campaigning regularly, both with him and as his main surrogate. Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn said Susan Tillis “can really speak to women in a more personal way about Thom and what Thom has overcome and achieved in his life.” SAM YOUNGMAN OF THE LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER AND AMANDA ALBRIGHT OF THE (RALEIGH) NEWS & OBSERVER CONTRIBUTED.