RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham was too early to call early Wednesday, with many votes yet to be counted.
Tillis, a first-term senator, led Cunningham by nearly 77,000 votes from among more than 5.4 million votes counted through early Wednesday, according to unofficial results. There were still up to 117,000 outstanding mail-in absentee ballots and an unknown number of provisional ballots cast.
Some of those people may have chosen not to vote, missed the deadline or voted in person.
Nov. 13 is when there will be a full picture of the numbers, which is when they canvass the votes.
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.
(Watch below: Sen Tillis addresses his supporters after claiming victory over Cal Cunningham)
The race was the most expensive Senate race ever, with $282 million spent by the two campaigns and outside groups in the general election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It attracted enormous amounts of outside money because of its impact on which party controls the Senate.
The campaign was marked in the final weeks by Cunningham’s acknowledgment of an extramarital affair and Tillis' positive case of COVID-19.
The race in the presidential battleground state was already being closely watched before word of Cunningham’s extramarital admission and Tillis' coronavirus diagnosis upended the race in early October.
Cunningham’s campaign authenticated sexually suggestive text messages — initially reported on by a conservative website — between him and a woman who was not his wife. Days later, the woman confirmed other texts about the relationship and told The Associated Press she had an intimate encounter with Cunningham as recently as July.
Cunningham said repeatedly that he had “taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life” but failed to respond to questions about whether he had been involved in any other extramarital affairs. The U.S. Army Reserve also announced it was investigating Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel, but didn’t give specifics.
Cunningham, 47, said the race wasn’t about his personal life, but rather issues such as health care and COVID-19 relief that he said Tillis had failed to address adequately while in the Senate. Democratic allies came to Cunningham’s defense in the days after the affair surfaced and reinforced their support for his candidacy.
Tillis, a former IBM consultant, tested positive for the coronavirus several days after attending the Sept. 26 White House event announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Unlike most people at the event, Tillis wore a face mask, but he took it off once indoors. Many attendees — including Trump — later tested positive for COVID-19.
Tillis, 60, campaigned on a record of passing Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, confirming scores of conservative judges and helping the country recover from the pandemic. But Cunningham said Tillis had voted to do away with President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law and couldn’t be trusted to protect working families.
North Carolina voters decide most expensive Senate race
North Carolina voters are choosing between a Republican U.S. senator and Donald Trump ally who has been criticized for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and a Democratic challenger who admitted in the campaign’s final weeks to sending sexually suggestive texts to a woman not his wife.
Tuesday’s contest between Sen. Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham is 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 have invested significantly in the presidential battleground state, hoping to make the seat one of the handful that need to flip to take back the Senate.
The state has already seen record early voting by mail and in person, with nearly 4.6 million ballots, or 62% of all registered voters, cast as of Monday afternoon, according to the State Board of Elections.
Focused for months on COVID-19, health insurance and taxes, the race pivoted four weeks ago when Cunningham, 47, acknowledged that he had written the 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 recent 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, 47, a former state legislator and 2010 Senate candidate, had been recruited to run for the seat by national Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Cunningham 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. 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.
Libertarian and constitution party candidates also are running for the seat.
Cox Media Group