Tillis Ekes Out Victory in North Carolina, Bolstering Republicans’ Hold on the Senate

Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, narrowly won re-election on Wednesday after a protracted vote count, capitalizing on unexpected party strength in a crucial swing state to defeat a Democrat damaged by late revelations of an extramarital affair.

Mr. Tillis, 60, had been one of Democrats’ top targets this year, a decidedly unpopular first-term Republican in a fast-growing and increasingly competitive state. But in the campaign’s final weeks, he drew a pair of aces in the form of a Supreme Court vacancy and a personal scandal that dogged his opponent, Cal Cunningham.

With the vast majority of votes counted, Mr. Tillis was leading by just under 100,000 votes in an election that drew more voters and political spending than any in the state’s history. Mr. Tillis took a lead on election night and never lost it, but because of an influx of mail-in ballots, the result was not made official until Wednesday, long after most others were called.

In a pre-emptive victory speech last week, Mr. Tillis said North Carolinians were “letting everybody know that the truth still does matter, letting everybody know that character still matters and letting everybody know that keeping your promises still matters.”

In a statement congratulating Mr. Tillis, Mr. Cunningham said the election results “suggest there remain deep political divisions in our state and nation,” and said he would “always be proud of the work we did together to lift up the voices of North Carolinians who feel left behind by our politics.”

The result was a relief for Republicans, who viewed the seat as a potential tipping point whose loss could have cost them control of the Senate. It gave Republicans 50 Senate seats to Democrats’ 48.

Either way, Mr. Tillis’s victory only increased the already towering stakes of a pair of January runoffs in Georgia, where a clean sweep by Democrats could hand them a working majority, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris empowered to cast tiebreaking votes. Republicans view that outcome as a long shot in a state they have historically dominated, but both parties were already pouring tens of millions of dollars into the races and honing messages to try to frame the holiday-season fight.

Mr. Tillis’s victory broke a curse that had long plagued his seat, which has swerved between the two parties for nearly 20 years, without an incumbent winning a second term since Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican, held it for three decades.

For more than a year, Mr. Tillis appeared likely to follow in the losing footsteps of his predecessors. He was deeply unpopular, lagging behind Mr. Trump in polls. Mr. Cunningham, a telegenic Iraq war veteran, relentlessly attacked him on health care, unleashing a barrage of ads highlighting the Republican’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his decision, as speaker of the North Carolina legislature, to block the expansion of Medicaid under the health care law.

As Mr. Trump’s own standing with voters dropped, Mr. Tillis was in a difficult position. He toiled to appeal to independent voters who had become disillusioned with the president, but also could not risk further alienating Mr. Trump’s base. The result was a jumble that pleased no one. Mr. Tillis sponsored a bill to protect Robert S. Mueller III, the former special counsel, and initially opposed using Pentagon funds for the border wall, Mr. Trump’s signature campaign promise.

But fearing a backlash from the president’s loyal supporters, Mr. Tillis reversed himself on the wall and voted to uphold a national emergency declaration by Mr. Trump that allowed the president to siphon millions of dollars from North Carolina military installations to build the structure. Mr. Cunningham called it a betrayal of his own state.

Still, in an extraordinarily unpredictable year, Mr. Tillis benefited from some late developments that shook up the race. After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in mid-September, he moved swiftly to capitalize on the election-season court vacancy to reassure conservatives skeptical about his candidacy.

Mr. Tillis immediately said he would vote to confirm whomever Mr. Trump nominated, and as a member of the Judiciary Committee, he had a highly visible public stage to showcase his role in helping install Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, cementing a conservative majority that Republicans have made one of their top priorities.

Another break came in early October, when it was revealed that Mr. Cunningham had carried on an extramarital affair, including during the campaign. Details were not particularly steamy by contemporary standards, but the United States Army Reserve opened an investigation because Mr. Cunningham was an officer, and The Charlotte Observer, the state’s largest paper, scrapped plans to endorse him after his evasive response.

Mr. Tillis and a cavalry of outside Republican groups spent the duration of the campaign hammering Mr. Cunningham on the airwaves for his conduct. Mr. Cunningham apologized and said he took “complete responsibility,” but he had staked his campaign on his character and his military service, making the revelations all the more damaging. His decision to hunker down and avoid questions about the scandal only fanned the flames.

“Veterans know we can’t trust Cal Cunningham,” said an unnamed veteran in one ad run by Mr. Tillis’s campaign.

Democrats had high hopes for Mr. Cunningham, 47, who cut the kind of moderate and inoffensive profile that has helped them claw back control of swing districts and states in the Trump era.

Fighting for political survival, Mr. Tillis turned to his humble roots, reintroducing himself to a growing state as the product of trailer parks who worked his way up to I.B.M. and the Republican leadership in the State House. Eschewing the more conservative message he ran on in 2014, he talked up his political independence and had little to say about Mr. Trump, despite his consistent support for the president’s agenda.

After the coronavirus hit the state beginning in March, he leaned into his incumbency, hosting dozens of town hall events focused on the government’s virus response and the slate of programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program, he voted to enact in Washington. When others in his party resisted, he urged North Carolinians to wear masks. He heaped praise on the state’s popular Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who won re-election last week.

And when Mr. Tillis contracted the coronavirus in early October, after attending a superspreader event at the White House where Mr. Trump announced Judge Barrett as his nominee, the timing was fortuitous.

That same night, Mr. Cunningham was forced to acknowledge his affair.

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