Charlotte, N.C. — Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis has ousted U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat, according to incomplete and unofficial returns.
Tillis' margin of victory will be narrow, most likely less than 2 percentage points once all votes are counted, after a bitterly contested race that was the most expensive congressional race in the country. His victory helped give Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.
"My name is Thom Tillis, and I'm the next United States senator from the state of North Carolina," Tillis said at 12:15 a.m. Wednesday, claiming victory before a crowd of cheering supporters in Charlotte.
Tillis cited the deluge of negative advertising that marked race since late 2013, crediting his volunteers with the win.
"You all refused to lose, and that's why I'm standing here before you," Tillis said.
For her part, Hagan made a point of expressing gratitude to her supporters and families during her concession speech.
"I have just called Speaker Tillis to congratulate him," Hagan told supporters in Greensboro just before midnight.
She pledged to help Tillis through the transition but did not reference the toxic soup of television commercials and pointed press statements that defined the campaign.
"You weren't just standing with me," Hagan told supporters. "You were standing with working families all across North Carolina."
A race with national implications
Tillis' victory was part of a set of Republican wins that give the GOP control of the U.S. Senate for the last two years of President Barack Obama's term.
"Welcome to the going away party for Harry Reid," Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr said as he got ready to introduce Tillis.
Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the current majority leader in the Senate, has been a focus of Republican ire throughout the campaign.
Once he took the stage, Tillis thanked Hagan for her remarks and her service to the state. He also talked about following through on Republican promises to trim down the federal government.
"We're going to make this country great again," Tillis said, provoking chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A." from the crowd.
Those post-election comments belied a hard-fought campaign.
Hagan and Tillis have traded barbs for most of the year – even before Tillis was officially the GOP nominee. The Republican Party's establishment clearly saw the state House speaker as their best shot at unseating Hagan, tapping him above tea party favorites such as Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary and Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, who were much more ideologically conservative than the one-time IBM business consultant.
Democrats took aim early on, pillorying Tillis with attack ads by third-party groups months before the May primary vote.
At least $111.2 million has poured into the campaign, according to figures put together by the Center for Responsive Politics. The actual spending is certainly higher, as candidates have yet to fully disclose their efforts and some nonprofit groups fell into legal loopholes that allowed them to keep their efforts undisclosed.
Despite broad swaths of spending that made North Carolina's Senate race the most expensive in the country, the band of issues over which the candidates sparred were relatively narrow.
Hagan emphasized her rating as a moderate senator and was repeatedly critical of what she said were deep cuts to education made by the North Carolina General Assembly.
Tillis countered by emphasizing his resume and tying Hagan to Obama, who is deeply unpopular in North Carolina, according to most polls.
"The underlying frustration and unhappiness associated with the Obama administration appears to have been a more powerful emotional trigger than any sense of frustration with the General Assembly," said Joe Stewart, director of the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation.
Republicans started the year by repeatedly emphasizing Hagan's role in passing the Affordable Care Act, what some people call "Obamacare." However, recent polls by Elon University and others show that the ACA has taken a back seat to education, foreign affairs and the economy as a top-tier issue for voters.
National issues helped Tillis
"When you're trying to explain the gender gap, education is the important issue," said Kenneth Fernandez, a political science professor and director of the Elon University Poll, noting that Hagan has been more popular among women than Tillis.
TV spending numbers reflect negative Senate campaign Fernandez said Tillis has been helped by a rise in the importance of foreign policy issues among the electorate. Voters who back Tillis are more likely to rate foreign policy issues as among the most important in the U.S. Senate race.
In addition to Hagan and Tillis, Libertarian Sean Haugh was also on the ballot. The pizza delivery man made the race difficult to gauge for pollsters, who saw anywhere from 1 percent to 8 percent of those surveyed say they would back him versus Hagan or Tillis.
"He is not a typical Libertarian candidate," Fernandez said.
While there is some conventional wisdom that says Libertarians draw more votes from Republicans such as Tillis, Haugh has embraced issues like marijuana legalization, which appeal to Democratic voters. More votes for Haugh, he said, would have been bad news for Hagan. As of just before midnight, the State Board of Elections reported he had garnered roughly 4 percent of the vote.
"Feeling great about tonight's results! We made a statement today that will only grow in future elections," Haugh said via Twitter Tuesday night.
Pollsters consistently predicted Hagan would win the race, typically giving her a slim lead heading into Election Day. A few polls predicted a tie, but no reputable public poll predicted a Tillis victory in advance of Election Day. Gary Pearce, a Democratic campaign consultant, said that it appeared voters in his party did not show up to vote in numbers as large as many had anticipated.
"The easiest way a poll can miss is to not accurately predict what turnout would look like," Pearce said. "It looks like people just made some wrong assumptions."