Sen. Thom Tillis has won reelection in North Carolina, defeating Democrat Cal Cunningham and spoiling Democrats’ hopes of gaining a seat in what has been the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history.
Tillis, 60, delivered a devastating blow to Democrats, who had identified him as a target in their quest to take back the Senate majority. The one-term senator had low approval ratings in North Carolina and was unknown to one-third of the electorate. He had been consistently trailing Cunningham, 47, in the lead-up to November, stymied by President Donald Trump’s poor numbers in the state.
Cunningham called Tillis to concede on Tuesday, a week after Election Day.
“The voters have spoken and I respect their decision,” Cunningham said in a statement after conceding the election. “While the results of this election suggest there remain deep political divisions in our state and nation, the more complete story of our country lies in what unites us: our faith and sense of confidence in our democracy, our civic values and common humanity, our shared aspiration to care for one another, and our belief that we live in a country that does exceptional things.”
A late-breaking scandal may have nonetheless helped Tillis to victory.
In early October, Tillis tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to quarantine; Cunningham, who debated Tillis just a day prior to the senator’s diagnosis, was forced off the campaign trail out of caution. Tillis recovered quickly.
What followed was likely Tillis’ biggest break in the election, when texts between Cunningham and a woman in California showed that the Democratic candidate was involved in an extramarital affair.
It was an embarrassing saga that landed Cunningham’s private texts in the press. Tillis’ campaign and the Republican Party seized on the opportunity to paint Cunningham as an untrustworthy, secretive and scandal-ridden politician. Both Tillis and Cunningham had struggled to gain voters’ trust throughout the cycle, but the scandal gave Tillis an edge in the fight.
Republicans ran ads emphasizing Cunningham as a married man sending “sexually explicit” texts to a woman who was not his wife. Cunningham admitted to the affair and laid low for the final month of his campaign, canceling fundraisers and campaign appearances in favor of unadvertised events with voters.
Tillis did the opposite, running around the state making the case for another term in office.
A reliable conservative, Tillis has been in lockstep with his party throughout Trump’s tenure. He has kept quiet during Trump’s most controversial moments, and been a fierce advocate for tax reform, repealing the Affordable Care Act, and nominating a large slate of conservative judges to the courts. He supported pushing Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett through the nomination process less than a month before Election Day, and has also backed Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
This tightrope walk has long been a vulnerability for Republicans in swing districts. North Carolina is split evenly between registered Republican and Democratic voters, with a small slice of true swing voters, mostly in suburban areas. Democrats have made huge gains in suburban areas under Trump.
Democrats made significant gains in North Carolina’s state House races in the 2018 midterms. But even then, Republicans had been largely able to fend off challengers in congressional races, and Cunningham’s scandal made it easier for Tillis to prevent anti-Trump sentiment in these areas from trickling into his own race.
Tillis ran an aggressive campaign, attacking Cunningham more than he explained his own ideas; his Senate campaign website didn’t even list any policy priorities. Meanwhile, Republicans painted Cunningham as a “socialist” despite his more moderate policy positions. GOP political ads lied that Cunningham supported programs like “Medicare For All,” which moves all Americans to public health insurance, and the Green New Deal, an ambitious progressive framework to address climate change. Cunningham explicitly ran against those two proposals.
In the final month, Tillis’ entire campaign focused on emphasizing Cunningham’s sex scandal. It paid off.