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Tillis declares victory but Cunningham doesn't concede in NC's US Senate race

Posted November 3, 2020 8:20 p.m. EST
Updated November 4, 2020 6:13 p.m. EST

— Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is on track to survive a tough re-election challenge in North Carolina, potentially protecting the Senate from a Democratic takeover.

Tillis declared victory over Democrat Cal Cunningham late Tuesday, when he held a lead of about 95,000 votes with 99.8% of precincts reporting.

By the time all precincts reported results early Wednesday, Tillis led by 96,000 votes. Unofficial results showed him with 2.64 million votes and Cunningham with 2.54 million votes.

More than 117,000 absentee ballots remain outstanding, but it's unclear how many will be returned.

Tillis called the result "stunning," referencing polling that gave Cunningham an edge heading into Election Day.

Cunningham, for his part, didn't concede or give a speech at North Carolina Democratic Party event Tuesday night, and he couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

Cunningham campaign manager Devan Barber said Wednesday that he wouldn't comment on the results until all ballots are counted.

"The State Board of Elections is continuing to count ballots, and we plan to allow that process to be carried out, so every voter can have their voice heard," Barber said in a statement.

"You will have to ask Cal Cunningham why he's not conceding, but this race is over." Tillis adviser Jordan Shaw said Wednesday.

"There's really no path here to victory for Cal Cunningham. The numbers just do not add up," Shaw continued. "We're confident in the margin. We're confident in the victory. We're confident that the people have spoken. We certainly want every vote to be counted, so if those absentee votes do come in, then they should be counted."

Democrats depended on Cunningham to help tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Republicans hold 53 seats. However, experts said Democrats could take control if their candidates won in North Carolina and other swing states.

By early Wednesday, that shift in power looked unlikely.

On stage in Mooresville, Tillis rebuked attacks that suggested he's out to serve the rich.

"I don't worry about the rich, ladies and gentlemen," he told a crowd while also vowing to continue fighting the coronavirus and support plans that allowed children to go back to school.

Before Election Day, oddsmakers gave Cunningham a good shot at winning.

Polling results tallied and averaged on FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics websites show Cunningham with a slight advantage over Tillis. A WRAL News poll released last week showed Cunningham with a three-point lead, 48-45 percent, but his margin had substantially narrowed from earlier polls.

The race will likely go down as the most expensive contest in U.S. Senate history. The candidates and outside groups together have spent more than $287 million on the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s $40 million more than the second-most-expensive race and easily twice as much as the $123 million spent on the race between Tillis and the late Kay Hagan in 2014.

The seat was Jesse Helms’ for 30 years until 2002. Since then, incumbents have lost the seat after just one term – a trend Tillis appears to have broken.

One could argue the big donations were needed this year, as each candidate struggled to muster enthusiasm from his respective base.

Tillis has faced accusations that he’s not loyal enough to President Donald Trump. He filed a bill in 2018 to protect special counsel Robert Muller, and he initially criticized Trump’s plan to divert funds from the military to pay for more barriers on the southern border.

Cunningham’s biggest issue emerged late in the race. The first week of October, the military veteran and Bronze Star recipient admitted to sending inappropriate text messages to another veteran’s wife. The woman later claimed to have had an intimate encounter with Cunningham and, on Oct. 7, the Army Reserve confirmed that it had opened an investigation into Cunningham’s conduct.

After news of the affair surfaced, Cunningham was less visible on the campaign trail. Tillis, meanwhile, stepped up his campaigning – and the difference between the two candidates in polls started to disappear.

"He made sure he was actively engaged in the final weeks of this campaign. That was an important contrast from what you saw from the Cunningham campaign," Shaw said.

While Cunningham avoided big events and dodged media questions, campaign ads attacked him for being untrustworthy.

Conservative groups, who had previously focused on the Democrat’s 2001 vote for a state bill that raised taxes, specifically highlighted Cunningham’s affair.

Liberal groups, meanwhile, attacked Tillis for his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Congressional races

Republicans expected to win about 10 of North Carolina's 15 Congressional races. Late Tuesday, that result appeared likely.

In the two competitive races, Democrats appeared to be struggling.

The Associated Press declared 25-year-old Republican Madison Cawthorn a winner in the 11th Congressional District in western North Carolina, which was left vacant after Mark Meadows resigned to work in as Trump's chief of staff. He defeated Democrat Moe Davis in a contentious race.

After the AP deemed Cawthorn the winner, he tweeted "Cry more, lib."

Davis released a statement saying he is disappointed, but that he respects the voters' decision.

Democrats also appeared to come up short in the 8th Congressional District in south-central North Carolina, where Republican Congressman Richard Hudson led Democrat Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a former state Supreme Court justice, by more than 20,000 votes with 83% of precincts reporting.

Incumbent Democrats appeared to win their races. First District Congressman G.K. Butterfield and 4th District Congressman David Price cruised past their opponents, while 12th District Congresswoman ran unopposed.

Deborah Ross appeared to flip the 2nd Congressional District for Democrats. But that victory was expected, as lawmakers redrew the district, which now covers much of Wake County, last year to give Democrats an advantage after courts declared a previous district map to be illegally gerrymandered. Kathy Manning flipped the 6th Congressional District in the Greensboro area for Democrats for the same reason.

Incumbent Republicans had even more success.

Third District Congressman Greg Murphy, 5th District Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, 7th District Congressman David Rouzer, 9th District Congressman Dan Bishop, 10th District Congressman Patrick McHenry and 13th District Congressman Ted Budd all won easily.

WRAL reporter Amanda Lamb contributed to this report.

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