RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – 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 97,000 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.
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.
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.
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