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Cunningham concedes to Tillis in NC Senate race

A sex scandal and a positive coronavirus test have shaken the high-stakes U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
A sex scandal and a positive coronavirus test have shaken the high-stakes U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.

Update: This story was updated at 12:29 p.m. Wednesday to reflect that Sen. Dan Sullivan has now won reelection in Alaska. 

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham has conceded to Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis in the U.S. Senate race for North Carolina. 

Cunningham’s concession concludes a chaotic race during which Tillis tested positive for the coronavirus and Cunningham became enmeshed in an sex scandal. Tillis leads Cunningham by nearly 100,000 votes as of Tuesday, and some media outlets, including CNN, have called the race for him. 

“I just called [Tillis] to congratulate him on winning re-election to a second term in the U.S. Senate and wished him and his family the best in their continued service in the months and years ahead," Cunningham wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “The voters have spoken and I respect their decision." 

Tillis declared victory in the race late on Election Day, though the race had not yet been called. He responded to Cunningham’s concession on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.

"Earlier this afternoon, Cal Cunningham called me to offer his concession. This was a hard-fought campaign and I wish nothing but the best to Cal and his family going forward," he tweeted. "I am incredibly humbled by the chance to serve the people of North Carolina in the United States Senate for six more years and I pledge to continue keeping my promises and delivering results."

Senate Republicans now have a 50-48 majority in the upper chamber, after incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan won reelection in Alaska. That means the two runoff races in Georgia will decide which party controls the Senate. 

This race was the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history. By Oct. 12, Cuningham has raised $71 million and Tillis $65 million, both from outside groups. 

Tillis, a first-term senator on the Judiciary Committee the and Armed Services Committee and a self-described “common-sense fiscal conservative,” ran his campaign largely based on promises to rebuild the economy. He frequently brought up his role in supporting small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program.  

Cunningham, a former state senator, regularly emphasized his Lexington roots and his experience as an army veteran in Iraq and Afghanistan. His platform included commitments to improving the affordability of healthcare and tackling corruption in Washington. 

Cunningham’s campaign raised over $7 million in the second quarter of 2020, setting a record for the most amount of money raised in a three-month period by an N.C. Senate candidate. In the next quarter, he shattered his own record when he raised $28.3 million to Tillis’s $6.6 million. 

Despite the high stakes and the amount of money raised, neither candidate ran a particularly unique campaign—both Tillis and Cunningham toed the party line and shied away from controversy. 

But a series of events in September and October shook up the race. First, there was uproar over an empty Supreme Court seat. In a Fayetteville rally the day after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tillis said he would support President Donald Trump’s nominee—before the nominee had been named.

Tillis tested positive for the coronavirus Oct. 2 after attending Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

That same night, released the news that Cunnigham had sent romantic texts to a woman who was not his wife. Cunningham admitted to the texts, and the Associated Press reported that Cunningham had been physically intimate with the woman. 

As Election Day approached, the two candidates adopted strikingly different campaign strategies, with Tillis campaigning across the state and Cunningham lying low.

Throughout the race, most polls showed Cunningham with a single digit lead over Tillis. An Oct. 29 New York Times/Siena College survey found that he still held a lead of 46 to 43 , despite a decrease in his favorability rating. Notably, Cunningham still had a 47-to-41-point lead with female voters. On Nov. 2, Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia changed their rating of the race from “Toss-up” to “Leans-Democrat.” 


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