GOP Sen. Thom Tillis wins reelection against Democrat Cal Cunningham in a competitive US Senate race in North Carolina

Grace Panetta,Yelena Dzhanova
·5 min read

 

  • GOP Sen. Thom Tillis is projected to have defeated Former State Senator Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, Insider and Decision Desk HQ can report. 

  • Cunningham challenged incumbent Tillis in what was one of the most highly watched Senate races of 2020.

  • Cunningham posted impressive fundraising numbers in his campaign and has led Tillis by substantial margins in recent polls of the state.

  • See the live coverage and full results from the U.S. Senate elections

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

 GOP Sen. Thom Tillis is projected to have won against former State Senator Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, Insider and Decision Desk HQ can report.

The candidates

Tillis was first elected in the Republican wave of 2014 and ran for a second term in an increasingly competitive state. In the Senate, Tillis serves on the powerful Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. He was previously the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives. 

Cunningham, a US Army veteran and former state legislator, is mainly emphasizing increasing access to healthcare, improving education, and combatting climate change in his policy platform. 

He's also posted impressive fundraising numbers in his campaign so far, a promising sign of his ability to compete in a state with several pricey media markets. In 2020's second fundraising quarter, Cunningham broke an all-time US Senate quarterly fundraising record in the state with a $7.4 million haul. 

On October 1st, National File published sexual texts of Cunningham's that appeared to show him cheating on his wife with a public relations strategist. The texts were confirmed to be real by Cunningham's campaign staff on Friday to The News & Observer.

"I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry. The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family's privacy be respected in this personal matter," Cunningham told The News & Observer.

Cunningham's scandal, however, did not immediately appear to hurt Cunningham's standing in the polls. Indeed, he's led Tillis in every single public poll released since the scandal broke.

As New York Magazine Ben Jacobs put it: "In the era of Trump, violating the Seventh Commandment is no longer an automatic career-killer. Voters may hate the sin, but they'll cast their ballots for the sinner."

The stakes

In addition to winning back the White House, regaining control of the US Senate for the first time since 2015 is a top priority for Democrats and would be a major accomplishment towards either delivering on a future president Joe Biden's policy goals or thwarting President Donald Trump's second-term agenda.

At the time of the election, the US Senate was made up of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents that caucused with Democrats, meaning that Democrats needed to win back a net total of four seats to have a 51-seat majority (because Biden won, his vice president will also serve as president of the Senate and will be a tie-breaker vote). 

North Carolina voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, but flipped to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.

Trump was in an increasingly precarious position heading into his re-election, and Democrats attempted to make a play to bring the state back into their coalition and pick up a crucial US Senate seat. 

In a further troubling sign for Tillis' chances, he performed behind Trump in many of the final polls of the race. A poll of North Carolina conducted by NBC News and Marist College in late October, for example, found Trump earning the support of 46% of likely voters 

Biden led Trump by 1.6 points on average in the presidential race in North Carolina, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling averages, but Trump ultimately prevailed and won the state in the election.

See Insider's full guide to the race for the US Senate here

The money race

Cunningham has significantly outraised and outspent Tillis, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cunningham has brought in a total of $47.5 million this cycle, has spent $46.6 million, and has a little over $886,000 in cash on hand, while Tillis has raised $18.9 million, spent $17.5 million, and has $3.5 million in cash on hand this cycle, according to campaign finance records. 

In 2020's third fundraising quarter, Cunningham outraised Tillis by a more than four-to-one ratio, bringing in a stunning haul of $28.3 million compared to just $6.6 million for Tillis. 

In addition to being a hotly-contested battleground state in the electoral college, North Carolina's Senate seat is a must-win for Democrats seeking to take back the chamber, and has attracted a record-breaking amount in outspending. 

The Center for Responsive Politics concludes that with a grand total of $233 million spent by both the candidates themselves and outside groups, North Carolina's Senate race is the most expensive congressional election in US history, breaking a record of $213 million spent in Florida's 2018 US Senate election. 

What the polling said

Cunningham led Tillis in every single public poll of the race released after June, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling tracker, and led Tillis by 2.8 percentage points on average in RealClearPolitics' polling average right before Election Day.

The poll of the race conducted by Emerson College from October 29-31 found Cunningham led Tillis by three points, 50% to 47%, among likely voters. 

A previous survey conducted by CNN/SSRS from October 23-30 also found Cunningham led Tillis by three points, 47% to 44%, among likely voters, while another Marist College/NBC News poll conducted October 25-28 found Cunningham ahead by a much larger margin, 10 points, 53% to 43%. 

See the live coverage and full results from the U.S. presidential election. 

What the experts said

The Cook Political Report and Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics rated this race as a "toss-up" while Inside Elections rated it as "tilts Democratic."

According to FiveThirtyEight's US Senate forecast, Cunningham had a 64% chance of defeating Tillis in November. As of late September, Cunningham was expected to receive 50% of the vote, about three percentage points more than Tillis.

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