RALEIGH — Republican Sen. Thom Tillis defeated Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham to win a second term in the U.S. Senate, with a margin of over 95,000 votes in unofficial election night results.
Tillis, who first was elected to the Senate in 2014, trailed Cunningham throughout the general election — but a seven-day stretch in early October flipped momentum in the race.
An extramarital affair with a disabled fellow-veteran’s wife, that included sexually charged text messages, plagued Cunningham throughout the final month of the campaign. Cunningham spent most of October dodging media questions and limiting his public appearances.
Democrats spent around $125 million in the race opposing Tillis. Over $280 million in total were spent by outside groups, making it the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history.
Tillis spent the final weeks of the race on a statewide barnstorming tour, with notable names like Sen. Ted Cruz and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley coming to North Carolina to stump for him.
“What we accomplished was a stunning victory,” Tillis said on election night. “We’ve heard this before. You’re down in the polls, there’s no chance of winning and I believed in every single one of you. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, getting the message out. 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.”
“The State Board of Elections is continuing to count ballots, and we plan to allow that process to be carried out, so every voter can have their voice heard,” said a statement from the Cunningham campaign.
A seven-day stretch altered the course of the campaign in early October.
First, Tillis confirmed a COVID-19 positive test on Friday, Oct. 2, less than 24 hours after President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump announced they had both tested positive.
Late that night, Cunningham confirmed that sexual text messages first obtained by the website NationalFile.com were authentic.
Days later, the woman, California public relations consultant Arlene Guzman Todd, confirmed physical encounters with Cunningham. Guzman Todd is the wife of a combat veteran. A second affair has also been alleged, but not confirmed, and Cunningham in a Zoom press conference on Oct. 9 refused to say how many more affairs he has had.
“I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I’ve apologized for it,” Cunningham said during his first meeting with reporters since the texts were reported. “I’ve said what I’m going to say about it.”
Public polling showed Cunningham with leads as large as 10 points before the affairs were revealed. A poll conducted by North State Journal and Cardinal Point Analytics, released the week prior to Election Day, put Tillis ahead of Democrat Cal Cunningham by five percentage points, with 46% to Cunningham’s 41%.
The Cunningham campaign tried to pivot to discussing issues like health care. Then, the U.S. Army confirmed it was investigating the conduct by Lt. Col. James Cunningham, calling him by his official first name.
Adultery has long been a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and service members can face a maximum penalty of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and confinement for a year.
“I am disgusted at his behavior and how he has responded to it,” said U.S. Army veteran Sean Kilbane at a press conference in October. “The people of North Carolina expect better from a United States senator.”
Kilbane added that if Cunningham was “willing to risk his candidacy” to have an affair with another veteran’s wife, then “what kind of self-serving behavior are we to expect out of him if he were to go to Washington, D.C.?”
Also on Oct. 14, a Federal Elections Commission complaint was filed against Cunningham by Americans for Public Trust, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government-watchdog group. The group is asking the FEC to examine possible campaign violations.
Tillis returned to the Senate for the confirmation process of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in late October.
During a campaign appearance in Durham on Sunday, Oct. 17, Gov. Roy Cooper and former Vice President Joe Biden briefly discussed Cunningham, with Cooper saying the scandals were “frustrating” as he greeted Biden on the tarmac at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The Tillis campaign seized momentum with his visible role during the Supreme Court confirmation process and with Cunningham’s scandal, propelling him to a win and a second term representing the state.