Thom Tillis won a hard-fought contest with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan on Tuesday, surviving what became the most expensive Senate race in the country to join a Republican wave of national victories.
“This victory is not my victory. This victory is our victory,” Tillis told supporters in Charlotte in a victory speech after midnight. “Y’all refused to lose, and that’s why I’m standing here.”
Just before midnight, Hagan conceded defeat and promised to work with Tillis during the transition.
“You weren’t just standing with me,” she told a Greensboro crowd. “You were standing with working families all across North Carolina. Those are the families I’ve worked to represent my six years in the U.S. Senate. Those are the families that still need a voice.”
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With all but 10 precincts counted, Tillis won with 48.85 percent of the vote to Hagan’s 47.23 percent. Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh received 3.75 percent.
Tillis won strongly in the west, except for Asheville, and in the state’s southeastern counties and on the Outer Banks. Hagan found most success in urban counties, taking Wake County 55 to 42 percent.
Hagan had been considered vulnerable from early on but had consistently kept a small lead in polls, and Democrats had thought she might help them retain their Senate majority. But Republicans fought hard to gain the six seats they needed to gain control. Hagan’s defeat added to Democratic losses in Kentucky, Colorado, Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota.
“Kay Hagan is suffering the same fate as other Democrats throughout the South,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. “From Mitch McConnell’s relative easy victory in Kentucky to Ed Gillespie’s strong showing against Virginia incumbent Mark Warner, it appears that President Obama’s disapproval among Southern voters was a very difficult burden for Democrats to overcome.”
Even though polls showed Hagan with a slight lead coming into Election Day, Republican enthusiasm for the midterm elections may have led to higher turnout than expected, McLennan said.
Hagan benefited from strong Democratic turnout in early voting, but Tillis bested Hagan in votes cast on Election Day by 125,000.
The senator didn’t appear to cash in on the women’s vote, McLennan said, with exit polls showing “the gender gap was essentially a wash, with men favoring Tillis and women favoring Hagan by about the same amount.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, contrasted the national GOP momentum with Tillis’ performance.
He noted that Tillis did not have as big a night as other Republicans with the race close until the final ballots were counted.
Obama on the ballot
Republicans made the campaign about President Barack Obama, who invited that strategy last month when he said his policies were on the ballot even though he wasn’t. Mirroring GOP Senate candidates across the country, Tillis rarely missed an opportunity to include Obama in any sentence that also mentioned Hagan.
Obama’s low approval ratings made Hagan and other endangered Senate Democrats keep a distance from him and stress their differences. But on Monday the president did four radio interviews in North Carolina: on “No Limit Larry in the Morning on WPEG in Charlotte,” “Artie and Fly Ty in the Afternoon” on WBAV, also in Charlote, “Mike and Friends in the Morning” on WFMI in Elizabeth City, and “The 3 Live Crew” on WJMH in Greensboro.
The radio interviews were among 14 Obama gave on Monday and Tuesday in states with close Senate or gubernatorial races.
For voters like Jerry Greenhoot, 78, of Charlotte, Obama was the problem. “It’s as much an anti-Obama vote as any of the other reasons, but not entirely,” he said at a Myers Park precinct. “I can”t think of one thing (Hagan) has done. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that out. And I was one.”
Greenhoot is a retired neurosurgeon.
Bringing out the family
In Charlotte, Gov. Pat McCrory, a longtime ally of Tillis’, arrived at the Republican party in Charlotte’s Omni Hotel about an hour after the polls closed.
“I think the campaign was good,” McCrory said of Tillis’ effort. “The only thing I didn’t like was the amount of negative TV ads.”
U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson stood on stage in front of an American flag at Tillis’s results party around 10:20 pm Tuesday. “Tonight’s a huge night for Republicans all across the country,” he said.
At the Greensboro Coliseum, Hagan supporters cheered Alma Adams, a Democrat, who won in the the state’s Congressional 12th District. Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, representing 96,000 teachers, also fired up the crowd.
Earlier in the day, Stephanie Stewart, a daycare worker, left a polling station at Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church and said she voted for Hagan. “She’s trying to help us, and Thom Tillis is trying to cut everything,” she said.
In the church parking lot, at the prescribed distance from the voting entrance, Kim Ruthven, Hagan’s sister-in-law who was up from Florida, held a Hagan sign and called out to voters, “It’s a great day to vote for Kay!”
She’d been there since 6:30 a.m., she said late Tuesday afternoon. Everyone in Hagan’s family had fanned out to some 20 polling places to try to give her campaign a boost.
“Thanks for voting. Tell your friends the polls are open until 7:30 tonight!” she said cheerfully as people left and got into their cars.
William Barnes, leaving the same polling place, said he voted for Tillis because he liked the raise for teachers this year and thought Tillis had done more for balancing the state budget and bringing jobs to the state.
Barnes said he lost his job a few years ago and had been working temporary jobs here and there. He voted for Hagan in 2008. “She’s been saying jobs are getting better here in North Carolina, but I just don’t see it,” he said.
Tillis finding traction
For her part, Hagan hammered away at Tillis’ record as speaker of the state House, where he helped lead a conservative revolution that shook up 140 years of Democratic rule, prompting praise from business and small-government interests and scorn from advocates for the poor and middle class, education, the environment and women. Weekly protests drew thousands to the legislative building and led to mass arrests.
Tillis’ task was to burnish his image as a moderate, business conservative while assuring anti-abortion, gun-rights and traditional marriage supporters that he also stood with them.
Hagan portrayed herself as a better reflection of North Carolina, one of the most middle-of-the-road members of the Senate who was also focused on improving the economy.
But both candidates painted each other as radicals, and where they left off, outside groups stepped in with more than 100,000 TV ads that left many people with campaign fatigue weeks ago. In excess of $100 million was spent on ads by both sides, mostly by outside interests with only murky accountability about who funds them.
The campaigns and their allies slung all manner of accusations against the contenders. But the one that seemed to gain the most traction was the fact that Hagan missed half of the Senate Armed Services Committee meetings.
Tillis also tried to capitalize on fears of terrorism, disease and border security to argue that the Obama administration hadn’t done enough to keep the country safe.
Polls favored Hagan
Polls consistently showed Hagan with the smallest of leads, but always in front. Even Tillis’ own internal polling showed no better than a tie last week. Although some polls have shown Tillis improving, the race has been from beginning to end too close to call.
Haugh, while adding a touch of levity to the race with his beer-sipping videos and his laid-back job as a pizza delivery man, was never expected to draw more than single-digit support.
But some analysts predicted that he might siphon votes of die-hard conservatives.
To counter that, an online ad campaign sought to steal Democrats from Hagan by promoting Haugh’s support for legalizing drugs and against military intervention in other countries.
Elisabeth Arriero of The Charlotte Observer, Lesley Clark of McClatchy’s Washington bureau and news researcher David Raynor contributed.