ELON, N.C (WTVD) -- Gender politics is front and center in the senate race between Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis.
A new Elon poll shows Hagan holding a small lead over Tillis (45-41). However, the poll also finds Hagan pulling 52-percent of the female vote, a 19 point advantage among likely women voters.
"It's sort of like digging out of a hole with a little bit of time left," said veteran Republican strategist Carter Wrenn, who told ABC11 he'd be worried if he was on team Tillis.
"Part of that for sure is because Hagan's a woman," said Wrenn. "Women identify with her. Another part is that education matters more as an issue."
Strategists on both sides of the aisle believe the General Assembly's handling of education policy could be the biggest factor in the crucial race for Senate that could tip the balance of power in Washington.
Hagan has been tying Tillis to the unpopular state legislature with accusations of education cuts and insufficient teacher raises. Tillis and his supporters pushing back with ads of their own saying Tillis earns high marks with educators.
Carol Teal, with the progressive political action committee Lillian's List, believes the controversies in Raleigh could be enough to sink Tillis' chances in November.
"There's real clear differences between these two candidates," said Teal. "It's taking its toll with women. So education is one, but [Tillis] was part of the leadership that defunded Planned Parenthood. So that made women pay attention."
While Hagan is leading by almost 20 points with women, Tillis holds a 12 point advantage with men. However, with female voters outnumbering males, Tillis will need to narrow the gender gap.
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Survey shows Hagan with narrow US Senate lead, big lead with women