Thom Tillis is headed back to the Senate after a hard-fought race during which he tested positive for COVID-19 after he flouted mask guidelines in the final weeks of the campaign—at the same time his Democratic opponent’s upstart run was marred by an extramarital sexting scandal.
Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham called Tillis to concede on Tuesday and issued a statement to say, “The voters have spoken and I respect their decision.”
“While the results of this election suggest there remain deep political divisions in our state and nation, the more complete story of our country lies in what unites us: our faith and sense of confidence in our democracy, our civic values and common humanity, our shared aspiration to care for one another, and our belief that we live in a country that does exceptional things,” the statement said.
Tillis was seen as one of the most vulnerable GOP senators in the country, particularly due to North Carolina’s standing as a swing state that remained competitive in the presidential contest throughout the election.
Cunningham gave Tillis’ campaign fits for much of the cycle, as the Army veteran and political centrist proved hard to define as a run-of-the-mill liberal despite the Republican’s best efforts.
Tillis attacked Cunningham as someone who would “say anything to get elected,” given his ambitions for elected office.
His re-election seemed to be slipping out of reach in the final weeks of the campaign during which Tillis tested positive for the coronavirus following the superspreader event at the White House surrounding the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett as the latest Supreme Court nominee.
But then, Cunningham found his campaign enveloped in scandal after secret, romantic text messages with a woman who was not his wife surfaced in a right-wing website called National File. Soon after, The Associated Press reported that the relationship between the Senate candidate and a political strategist named Arlene Guzman Todd had also included “an intimate encounter.”
North Carolina news station WRAL reported amid the controversy around Tillis that the Army Reserve had said in a statement in October they were “investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham. As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time.”
The controversy breathed new life into Tillis’ campaign, and the Republican lawmaker leaped on the opportunity. At every campaign stop in the run-up to the election—including a Trump rally in Fayetteville on Nov. 2 with thousands of attendees—Tillis surfaced the affair revelations in order to make the case that Cunningham was unworthy of trust.
“He’s run a campaign, spent tens of millions of dollars, looking at the camera and saying, ‘Truth and honor matter.’ That’s the foundation of his campaign,” Tillis said at a campaign stop in Cunningham’s hometown of Lexington on Nov. 2. “And his personal actions have proven definitively that he’s neither truthful nor honorable.”
“Cal Cunningham is trying to run out the clock on his lies that landed him a US Army investigation, but North Carolinians are seeing right through him,” Tillis tweeted Oct. 24.
Still, heading into the final stretch of the campaign Cunningham had a dramatic spending and fundraising advantage over the incumbent’s campaign. Campaign finance records through mid-October showed Cunningham having raised more than $47 million, but also having spent more than $46 million. Tillis, on the other hand, raised more than $22 million and spent over $19 million.
That didn’t keep Tillis from beating Cunningham, however, in a victory for Republicans who had begun to give up on the idea of the GOP maintaining control of the U.S. Senate.
The race was called on Tuesday with Tillis earning 2,642,884 votes, or 48.7 percent, to Cunningham’s 2,547,594, or 47 percent, according to the Associated Press.
“This was a hard-fought campaign and I wish nothing but the best to Cal and his family going forward,” Tillis said in a statement.
“I know that my job is fighting for the jobs of the hardworking people of our state, which is why my first post-election priority will be defeating COVID-19 and getting the economy back on track.
“North Carolinians have a solid record of weathering storms and coming back stronger than ever. I am confident that we all can come together and meet this moment and am ready to get to work.”
With additional reporting from Sam Brodey