Former sportscaster Harold Johnson defeated businessman Tim D'Annunzio Tuesday after an expensive and combative 8th District congressional primary that saw party leaders go to extraordinary lengths in supporting him.
Johnson, who turns 69 next week, was winning about 61 percent of the vote in unofficial returns. He piled up big margins in the district's western portion, including Cabarrus County, which offset D'Annunzio's support in the east.
Johnson now faces Democratic U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell and Libertarian Thomas Hill in the 10-county district that stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville.
A political newcomer, Johnson built on recognition from a 30-year career on the area's top-rated newscast.
"I'm just humbled," Johnson said. "Obviously (voters) looked at Tim and they looked at me and they said, 'Which candidate can best represent us in Washington?'"
Tuesday night D'Annunzio watched the returns at home with aides and family members.
"I want to first thank God, as well as my supporters, volunteers, and all of the voters for the position I'm in," he said in a statement. "I cannot endorse Harold Johnson and his underhanded campaign tactics. What he's done is a continuation of politics as usual, and for that I will not be supporting him."
Johnson's victory comes as a relief to the party's establishment.
All five Republicans in North Carolina's congressional delegation endorsed Johnson after state Chairman Tom Fetzer called D'Annunzio "unfit for public office at any level." And last week House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and other top GOP lawmakers hosted a Capitol Hill fundraiser for Johnson.
D'Annunzio ran against the establishment. He sent out an Election Day e-mail telling supporters about rumors of "the NCGOP hijacking this election" by installing Johnson as the nominee even if D'Annunzio were to win.
"I'm very glad that Harold won," Fetzer said Tuesday night. "The 8th will be one of the top battleground seats in the country. ... Most of Mr. D'Annunzio's troubles were self-inflicted."
Polls - including D'Annunzio's own - showed Johnson leading by double digits in the campaign's final days. Last week D'Annunzio told the Observer it would "take a miracle" for him to win.
D'Annunzio made headlines by raising money at "machine-gun socials." But only two House candidates in the country invested more in their own race. He gave his campaign more than $1.3 million, including $25,000 last Friday.
Johnson gave his campaign nearly $300,000.
They used the money to finance an aggressive and bitter media campaign.
One Johnson ad highlighted D'Annunzio's "history of drug use and time in prison," an allusion to his opponent's past legal problems.
Court documents from 1995 detailed D'Annunzio's earlier arrests and episodes of violence and drugs. A judge called him a "self-described religious zealot" who once called the government the "Anti-Christ."
Johnson's ad prompted D'Annunzio to file a defamation suit. D'Annunzio then used that suit as the basis for ads that said, "According to court documents, Harold Johnson BROKE N.C. election laws."
D'Annunzio railed against the media as well.
Last week he told WBT host Keith Larson that "there's a special place in hell for people like you" after accusing Larson of narrating a Johnson ad.
A profile in Sunday's Fayetteville Observer quoted him telling the reporter, "I know your type. I don't need to know you personally because I know you. I think you are the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low, the vilest of the vile."
Johnson entered the six-way primary field late and didn't even move into the district until January, when he traded his longtime home in Statesville for a Concord condo.
But he clearly benefited from his years on WSOC-TV, whose signal reaches as far east as Rockingham, covering more than 70 percent of 8th District voters.
D'Annunzio questioned Johnson's grasp of issues, but chose to cancel the runoff's lone debate, blaming what he called collaboration between the Johnson campaign and the media.
In a news release Tuesday night, the N.C. Democratic Party criticized "Johnson's extreme right-wing agenda" and questioned his understanding of crucial issues.
Johnson may not be the last candidate in the race.
A union-backed effort succeeded in getting a place on the ballot for N.C. Families First, which would challenge Kissell from the left.
But its candidate - former Kissell aide Wendell Fant of Concord - has said he hasn't decided whether he'll run. Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059