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NC Senate Race Too Early To Call, Democrats Flip 2 Redrawn U.S. House Seats

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., celebrates with his wife Susan, at a election night rally Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Mooresville, N.C.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., celebrates with his wife Susan, at a election night rally Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Mooresville, N.C.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., celebrates with his wife Susan, at a election night rally Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Mooresville, N.C.
Credit Chris Carlson / AP
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., celebrates with his wife Susan, at a election night rally Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Mooresville, N.C.

Updated at 2:40 a.m. on 11/4/2020

It was too soon to call North Carolina's U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham early Wednesday, with many votes yet to be counted.

Tillis, a first-term senator, led Cunningham by nearly 97,000 votes from among more than 5.4 million votes counted in the unofficial tally. There were still up to 117,000 outstanding mail-in absentee ballots and an unknown number of provisional ballots cast.

Although The Associated Press hasn't declared a winner in the race, Tillis played the role of victor on Tuesday night to supporters gathered north of Charlotte.

"What we accomplished tonight was a stunning victory and we did it against all the odds," he said to a cheering crowd. Cunningham did not speak at a state Democratic Party candidate event in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday night. Cunningham campaign spokesperson Rachel Petri didn't have a statement from him about the results early Wednesday.

Tillis had faced a tough partisan battle with Cunningham, an attorney and military reservist recruited heavily for the race by national Democrats.

Tillis said he had a heavy burden on him thinking that North Carolina could be the majority maker for the U.S. Senate.

"I told people across this state that they need to carry that same burden," he said. "And in the election today, they proved to me that they were willing to carry that burden all the way to victory tonight."

Tuesday's contest between Tillis and Cunningham was the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history. More than $280 million has been spent by the campaigns and by outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. National Democrats invested significantly in the presidential battleground state, hoping to make the seat one of the handful they needed to flip to take back the Senate.

Focused for months on COVID-19, health insurance and taxes, the race pivoted four weeks ago when Cunningham, 47, acknowledged that he had written sexually suggestive texts to a public relations strategist from California. He apologized, saying he was "deeply sorry." A few days later, The Associated Press reported additional texts and interviews confirming he and the woman had an intimate encounter as recently as July.

The revelations gave life to Tillis' campaign, which used interviews with the senator and political ads to question Cunningham's integrity. Before the revelation, Cunningham, a U.S. Army reserve officer and Iraq War veteran, had presented himself as a family man and dogged military prosecutor.

After the revelation, Cunningham stuck to a low-profile schedule, holding small, unannounced events that were revealed after the fact on social media. In the sole online news conference he held, he refused to say whether he had had other affairs.

Cunningham, a former state legislator and 2010 Senate candidate, outraised Tillis dramatically this year, but Tillis, a former state House speaker, benefited from independent expenditure groups.

Still, it was Cunningham and allied groups who flexed their financial muscles in the final weeks.

In this March 3, 2020, file photo, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters during a primary election night party in Raleigh, N.C.
Credit Gerry Broome / AP File
In this March 3, 2020, file photo, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham speaks to supporters during a primary election night party in Raleigh, N.C.

They flooded the airwaves with commercials focusing on Tillis' votes to repeal President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law and a state legislative career that included blocking Medicaid expansion.

Registered Democrat Ronald Minter, 52, an apartment maintenance worker from Raleigh, said Cunningham's personal issues weighed on him. But Minter said he still voted for Cunningham.

"No man is perfect, but every man deserves a second chance," Minter said. "He thinks that he can redeem himself."

Tillis, 60, a former IBM consultant, last year frustrated some conservatives who accused him of failing to embrace Trump fully. But Republican Fred Schroeder of Chocowinity said he was pleased with the senator and that he needs to win to keep the GOP in control of the chamber.

"Tillis is doing his job," said Schroeder, 81, who is retired from the steel industry. "I don't think he's done anything bad ... and he hasn't embarrassed anyone that I know of."

Cunningham's acknowledgement of his extramarital activity on Oct. 2 came a couple hours after Tillis announced he tested positive for the coronavirus. Several days earlier, the senator had attended the White House event announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. A strong proponent of constituents wearing facemasks, Tillis acknowledged making a mistake by taking off his mask while indoors at the event.


Democrats flipped two open U.S. House seats that they had been favored to win in North Carolina on Tuesday while Republicans defended two seats that had turned into competitive races, leaving the state's congressional delegation with an 8-5 split in favor of the GOP. The congressional races were among key down-ballot races that also included contests that were determining the power balance in the state's legislature and the makeup of a group of key statewide offices.

Democrat Kathy Manning beat Republican Joseph Lee Haywood in the Greensboro-area 6th U.S. House District, and Deborah Ross defeated Republican Alan Swain in the Raleigh-area 2nd U.S. House District. The two seats had previously been in GOP hands before district boundaries were redrawn in 2019 as part of court-mandated redistricting.

"We can work together and get things back on track with a new sense of leadership in Washington D.C., and this can be bipartisan," Ross said in her acceptance speech Tuesday night. "It's been done before."

Ross most recently ran for elected office in 2016, when she failed to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr. She previously served in the state House from 2003 to 2013.

Meanwhile, two other closely contested races went in the GOP's favor.

Republican Madison Cawthorn won the 11th District in western North Carolina, a seat vacated by Mark Meadows, who became President Donald Trump's chief of staff.

In the 8th District, which runs along several counties in the southern part of the state, Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson defeated Democratic challenger Patricia Timmons-Goodson, who previously served on the state Supreme Court. Hudson assumed office in 2013 and won his past reelection efforts handily. The closely contested race had included a barrage of television ads from both sides.

Both of those districts had been considered Republican-leaning, but the races proved to be close.

Meanwhile, nine incumbents who were favored also retained their seats. Democratic U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield were reelected, and U.S. Rep. Alma Adams ran unopposed. Republican U.S. Reps. Patrick McHenry, Ted Budd, Dan Bishop, Virginia Foxx, David Rouzer and Greg Murphy — all were reelected.


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Elizabeth “Liz” Baier is WUNC’s Digital News Editor. She joined the station in May 2016 after eight year of reporting for Minnesota Public Radio News where she covered everything from demographic changes in rural America, agriculture, the environment and health care. Prior to that, Liz worked for six years as a newspaper reporter in South Florida, both at the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.