Republican Thom Tillis unseated first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in this closely divided state, after a campaign that served as a nasty and free-spending battleground for outside groups on both sides.
Tillis, whose tenure as speaker of the Republican-led state House became a major issue in the race, rode a wave of discontent over President Obama to beat Hagan, who failed to inspire much passion even in her base. Like other Democrats around the country, she struggled to gain momentum as Tillis turned the race into a referendum on the Obama presidency.
The loss was a body blow for Democrats nationally, who had poured tens of millions of dollars into North Carolina – a state where they outnumber Republicans – to try to salvage their Senate majority. In his victory speech early Wednesday, Tillis said he prevailed against the negative ads that attacked his record in the state Legislature.
“We didn’t bend; we won,” he said. “We have swept this nation. Somehow I think Sen. [Harry] Reid is going to have a different office assignment in January,” he added, referring to the Democratic majority leader.
The crowd at Tillis’ party here erupted in cheers and chants of “USA! USA!” after the race was called for him late Tuesday, adding to the string of Republican victories that gave them the majority in the Senate for the first time in eight years.
The race was the most expensive Senate campaign ever, with outside groups providing the biggest share of $107 million in spending. Most of the money went into a television ad war that frayed voters’ patience, and into aggressive turnout efforts on both sides.
Republican leaders gave part of the credit to a stronger turnout operation that they began building two years ago.
“The reason they spent all that money was they knew what we had here,” Tillis said. “Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers knocking on doors, doing what they had to do to win. Y’all refused to lose and that’s why I’m standing here.”
Once a reliably red state, North Carolina has become a roiling swing state in the last few elections; it went for Obama in the 2008 presidential election, but for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
The Senate race, featuring a relentless parade of attack advertising, became a referendum on who was more unpopular: Obama, the focus of the Republican attacks, or the Republican state Legislature, which pushed through a conservative agenda that included trims to education spending and limits on early voting.
Democrats were reported to be leading in the early vote totals, but Hagan was unable to pull enough votes in Charlotte, the state’s largest city, and the Raleigh-Durham area to offset Tillis’ advantages in more rural parts of the state.