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Incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis Victorious in NC After Democratic Challenger Concedes

By Linda Jacobson | November 11, 2020

(Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

2020’s KEY EDUCATION VOTES: See our full coverage of the 46 races that could reshape America’s schools following Election Day — and get the latest updates on state policies and students’ challenges during the pandemic by signing up for The 74 Newsletter.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis claimed victory over Democrat Cal Cunningham a week ago, but it wasn’t until Tuesday that the challenger, his campaign weighed down by revelations of an extramarital affair, accepted the outcome.

With results still unofficial on Tuesday and 98 percent of precincts reporting, Cunningham, who received 47 percent of the vote, conceded the victory to Tillis, who received 48.7 percent.

“The end of this campaign does not mark the end of our need to improve access to health care, strengthen education, heal racial wounds, and create better jobs,” Cunningham wrote in his response, which he posted on Twitter. “These are causes that still must be championed.”

In a race that also saw a positive COVID-19 test for Tillis, the incumbent’s victory was unexpected. Despite the affair, Cunningham had been leading in the polls up until Election Day, with 53 percent of the vote.

The outcome of the race was considered a factor in deciding who controls the Senate during the next administration. Tillis’s win tips the balance in the GOP’s favor — 49 to 48.

But experts also saw the race as a measure of whether the Republicans would lose ground across the South, which was demonstrated in President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

Now Tillis is putting his energy toward raising campaign funds and getting Republican voters to the polls for the runoff election Jan. 5 in Georgia, where appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler and incumbent Sen. David Perdue will face off against Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff — ultimately determining who controls the Senate.

“Our race in North Carolina is over now, but we’ve got to keep working to defend the American dream by holding the U.S. Senate,” Tillis tweeted.

It was also unclear how soon the outcome of races in North Carolina would be known after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 on Oct. 28 not to interfere with a nine-day period for counting absentee ballots put in place by the State Board of Elections. Ballots postmarked by Election Day and that have arrived by 5 p.m. Nov. 12 will still be counted.

Republicans had asked the court to intervene, saying that the board interfered with the legislature’s authority over election procedures. Newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the ruling.

The impact of the affair

In the days leading up to the election, Tillis, a one-time PTA president at his daughter’s high school, used Cunningham’s affair to suggest the candidate shouldn’t be trusted.

Immediately following the news that Cunningham, a husband and father of two, exchanged sexually-tinged text messages and had an affair with a California married woman, the race between him and Tillis grew closer. Cunningham’s campaign took a more guarded approach in the final weeks before the election to keep the candidate from having to respond to questions about it.

Tillis, on the other hand, received criticism from business owners for focusing more on securing a confirmation for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee before Election Day than passing another pandemic relief bill.

Cunningham, an Army veteran who led an environmental services company before winning the Democratic primary, portrayed himself as a stronger education candidate, focusing on increasing teacher pay and Title I funding for high-poverty schools. As a former state senator, he voted in favor of the North Carolina Pre-K program and said he would work to create career pipelines for early childhood educators at the federal level.

(Cal Cunningham / Twitter)

Last year, Cunningham used the release of a report calling for more funding for the state’s schools to say the state “took a severe turn away from progress” under Tillis’s leadership as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.

The North Carolina Association of Educators endorsed Cunningham and criticized Tillis during the campaign for not supporting the pandemic relief bill passed by the U.S. House.

But Tillis touted his support of the Every Student Succeeds Act and said he has worked to expand job training programs and college opportunities for low-income and minority students.

2020’s KEY EDUCATION VOTES: See our full coverage of the 46 races that could reshape America’s schools following Election Day — and get the latest updates on state policies and students’ challenges during the pandemic by signing up for The 74 Newsletter.

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