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Candidates' Attendance Becomes Latest Issue To Dominate Campaign Trail


RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lawmakers run from chairing committees to giving speeches to casting votes, raising campaign money all the while. It's what they do, whether serving on Capitol Hill or at the statehouse. No one has perfect attendance.


When North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis criticized Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan for acknowledging she couldn't attend a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing because of a campaign fundraiser, Tillis knew he'd missed days at work as state House speaker to raise money too. Tillis has turned missed meetings into an issue in his tight race against Hagan, both in a television ad and at their second debate this week. Now he's accusing his Democratic opponent of putting raising money ahead of keeping a close eye on threats posed by Islamic State militants and others.


"There is nothing more important than receiving briefings on our national security," Tillis said Wednesday. "Sen. Hagan has failed to do her job."


But since he announced his bid for the Senate, Tillis has at least twice been in Washington raising money while his colleagues in the North Carolina House debated or negotiated key legislation.


In July 2013, he was absent when the House gave final approval to North Carolina's most sweeping tax changes in a generation. Also on the calendar that day were significant bills related to immigration, coastal regulation and firearms. And while lawmakers were trying to negotiate an end to this year's General Assembly session last summer, Tillis was back in Washington for two more fundraisers.


"It is Speaker Tillis who acted inappropriately by skipping work and his duties as House speaker to raise funds for his Senate bid," Hagan campaign spokesman Chris Hayden said in a statement.


Similar dust-ups over attendance have come up in other close U.S. Senate races this year as Republicans try to win a majority in the chamber for the final two years of President Barack Obama's presidency.


In Iowa, Republican nominee Joni Ernst has faulted Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for missing hearings of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, while Democrats have pointed out that Ernst missed many floor votes as an Iowa state senator while running in the GOP primary.


In Colorado, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner released an ad this week criticizing Sen. Mark Udall for missing 64 percent of his Armed Services Committee hearings. At a debate Tuesday night, he challenged Udall to explain where he had been. Udall didn't answer, but he stressed he had never missed a committee vote.


And in Kentucky, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state, have argued about the propriety of taking their government salaries while campaigning.


The attendance issue may be the most pointed in North Carolina, where Tillis is trying to shift the discussion from the Republican agenda he helped oversee as state House speaker to how Hagan has done her job in her first term, particularly on national security issues. They will hold their final scheduled debate of the campaign Thursday evening in Wilmington.


Members of Congress and legislative leaders have jam-packed schedules, often with multiple committee meetings taking place simultaneously. Patrick Griffin, a former legislative affairs assistant to President Bill Clinton and a former U.S. Senate staffer, rejected equating attendance records with the level of knowledge and influence that someone like Hagan or Tillis may have on an issue.


Legislative staff members keep abreast of matters, even attending closed hearings if their security clearances allow it, Griffin said. Lawmakers also get special briefings and rely on colleagues for insight.


"It's really a tool of the silly season and not really an accurate representation of how somebody is informed," said Griffin, a lecturer at American University in Washington. "I think the public really has no idea what the Senate members do in a day."


When asked if he was being disingenuous by criticizing Hagan given his own absences, Tillis suggested the activities in Raleigh weren't as significant.


"Quite honestly, if I had anything approaching the seriousness of the threat of ISIS, I would have cancelled anything I was doing," Tillis said, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms. He later pointed out he was in Raleigh "the vast majority of the time" doing his job, such as negotiating the state budget.


Hagan said in a post-debate news conference Tuesday that she missed an Armed Services hearing when it was postponed after some Senate votes were scheduled.


Hagan's campaign confirmed Wednesday the hearing occurred Feb. 27. The Armed Services Committee held a closed hearing that afternoon on "current and future worldwide threats" to national security. Hagan's campaign scheduled a cocktail reception at a New York apartment that evening.


Her campaign hasn't denied she missed more committee meetings, but she has described herself as a vigilant senator who in part has chaired three subcommittee meetings that addressed the threat of "al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria," a previous name for the group that now calls itself the Islamic State.




Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker and Emery P. Dalesio in Raleigh, Donna Cassata in Washington and Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.