Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr won a third term Tuesday by defeating Democratic challenger Deborah Ross.
Burr, of Winston-Salem, led Ross, a former state legislator from Raleigh, by about 6 percentage points with nearly all votes counted.
Libertarian Sean Haugh, a pizza delivery driver from Durham, trailed far behind.
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Burr thanked a packed room full of supporters Tuesday night at the Forsyth Country Club in Winston-Salem. A rhythmic cheer of “Burr, Burr, Burr” traveled across the room when the news of his victory was announced.
“It’s an honor to be granted a third term in the United States Senate,” Burr said in his victory speech. “This is a victory for all of those who believe in me and who have continued to have confidence in the fact that my values match your values.”
Ross spoke to the N.C. Democratic Party’s gathering at the Marriott in downtown Raleigh. Democrats gathered there booed the news of Burr’s victory, and a few cried.
“We’ve seen what the needs are of the state of North Carolina, and I am hoping and praying that this next Congress will address them,” Ross said as she conceded the race to Burr. “I don’t consider this the end. I consider this an opportunity to inspire young people.”
Ross said she was going to “take a page from Harvey Gantt’s playbook,” referring to the former Charlotte mayor who ran twice unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.
“But one of the major things he did was inspire our president, Barack Obama,” Ross said. “I hope that I’ve inspired one or two people along the way.”
Speaking at Burr’s victory party, fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said the election results were a vote of confidence in GOP leaders.
“Despite the millions and millions of dollars that have been spent to try to mislead people, everybody knows North Carolina is a better place because of good principled conservative leadership,” Tillis said.
The race proved to be one of the most expensive Senate races in the state’s history. Outside groups spent more than $58 million to influence the race – much of it on the negative ads that have bombarded TV viewers in recent months. The total is far more than the $23 million raised by the campaigns of Ross and Burr.
Most of the outside money has come from other states, much of it from wealthy individuals and corporations. They’re free to make unlimited donations to so-called “super” political action committees, but the amounts of their contributions and their identities must be disclosed.
Still, the total spent this year was less than the $111 million spent in the 2014 Senate contest between Democrat Kay Hagan and Tillis. That campaign was the most expensive Senate race in American history.
This year, the candidates’ positions on the issues – and their legislative records – were largely overshadowed by attack ads.
Ross faced criticism for actions she took as leader of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union in the 1990s. Republicans sought to portray her as soft on sex crimes because she’d voiced concerns about the creation of the state’s sex offender registry.
At the time, Ross argued that the registry “would make it even harder for people to reintegrate into society,” and that it might harm victims who were abused by family members because the victims’ names could become public by association. She says she was always supportive of the registry.
Democrats tried to paint Burr as a Washington insider who backs legislation favorable to industries that donated to his campaign.
Burr has supported legislation favored by the companies that mine and burn fossil fuels. The coal, oil and natural gas industries, along with executives and lobbyists for electric utilities and nuclear power companies, gave Burr nearly $1.7 million in campaign donations since he first won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1994, according to a McClatchy analysis.
A Burr spokeswoman has said that “outside groups never dictate his votes or positions.”
In polls of the race, Burr has held a narrow lead through much of the campaign, but that lead grew smaller in October. The candidates were tied in two polls conducted in the final weeks of the campaign.
Burr made national headlines last week when a leaked recording featured the senator joking to Republicans that when he saw a National Rifle Association magazine featuring Democrat Hillary Clinton, he was “a little bit shocked that it didn’t have a bullseye on it.” Burr immediately apologized for the remark, but it gave Ross an opening to tie the soft-spoken senator to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – who Burr endorsed.
Burr also faced criticism for promising on the recording that he’d block all Supreme Court nominees if Clinton is elected.
Ross’ campaign also got some negative attention last week when a video surfaced showing one of her donors making racist comments about black Republicans at a campaign fundraiser. Republicans called on Ross to denounce the donor, and she gave his $200 contribution to Hurricane Matthew relief efforts.
Richard Burr, R (i) 51.12%
Sean Haugh, L 3.56%
Deborah Ross, D 45.32%
2,702 of 2,704 precincts reporting.