Republican Thom Tillis rode a wave of frustration with Washington Tuesday night to unseat Democrat Kay Hagan after the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history.
Tillis’ victory gave Republicans control of the Senate and capped one of the fastest rises in N.C. politics for a man who, just eight years ago, was a town commissioner in Cornelius.
With all but a handful of statewide precincts counted, Tillis was winning with 48.95 percent of the vote to Hagan’s 47.14 percent. Libertarian Sean Haugh had 3.74 percent.
Tillis’ victory capped a GOP takeover of the Senate, which Republicans will control for the first time in eight years. They added the Tar Heel state to GOP gains in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota.
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Tillis’ win also put the GOP firmly in charge of North Carolina’s congressional delegation with two senators and 10 of 13 representatives – on top of the General Assembly and governor’s mansion.
At Charlotte’s Omni Hotel, Tillis supporters broke out in jubilant cheers as FoxNews declared him the victor shortly before 11:30 p.m. The crowd chanted “Thom” and “USA” and sang “na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.”
Tillis took the stage shortly after midnight.
“My name is Thom Tillis, and I’m the next United States senator from North Carolina,” he said to cheers. “But I want to make absolutely certain that everyone of you just calls me ‘Thom’ because you’re friends.
“This victory is not my victory, it’s your victory.”
Hagan, in Greensboro, had called Tillis to congratulate him shortly before giving her concession.
“Our work to improve the lives of North Carolinians and to build an economy that works for everyone isn’t over,” she told disappointed supporters.
An anti-Obama turnout
CNN exit polls showed Tillis won the votes of men, white voters and self-described independents, while Hagan captured women, voters under 44 and self-described moderates.
Tillis lost his home county of Mecklenburg as well as most major urban areas.
Hagan won in 2008 with the help of then-President-elect Barack Obama and lost six years later in large part because of him. Tillis tied Hagan to Obama at every turn and tapped voters’ frustration with the administration and Democratic leadership.
“It’s as much an anti-Obama vote as any of the other reasons, but not entirely,” said retired Charlotte neurosurgeon Jerry Greenhooot, 78, of Myers Park. “I can’t think of one thing (Hagan) has done. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that out. And I was one.”
In an off-year election that cost a record $4 billion, spending in the North Carolina race shot above $100 million while voters endured a barrage of nearly 114,000 TV ads.
No Senate race in the country saw more outside spending. More than $81 million came from groups such as the Senate Majority PAC, tied to Majority Leader Harry Reid and backed by wealthy donors. It spent at least $13 million on Hagan’s behalf, according to the Center for Reponsive Politics.
At the Omni, GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger said Tillis survived millions in attack ads. “It’s remarkable he’s standing tall now,” Pittenger said. “Not many people would withstand that type of challenge and abusive negative campaigning.”
While Hagan benefited from strong Democratic turnout in early voting, Tillis more than made up for that on Election Day. Democrats increased their early turnout by 23 percent over 2010. But Tillis won Election Day balloting by 125,000 votes.
Though Hagan spent most of the year distancing herself from Obama, she welcomed his aid in the final hours. On Monday her campaign aired a radio ad in which he implored voters to “Stand with me, President Obama … by voting for Kay Hagan.”
Women’s vote not enough
Final polls showed Hagan and Tillis virtually tied. But every poll showed Hagan with a significant edge among women, and she pushed hard for women’s votes. “I like it that Kay Hagan is a woman,” said Charlotte voter Barbara Morrow, 38. “I felt she could more closely represent me.”
While Tillis and his allies sought to tie Hagan to Obama – saying she voted with him 96 percent of the time – she attacked Tillis’ leadership of the state House. The Republican-controlled legislature, enacting measures on voting rights, abortion rights and education, served as a foil that galvanized her party’s base.
“She’s trying to help us, and Thom Tillis is trying to cut everything,” said Greensboro daycare worker Stephanie Stewart, who voted for Hagan.
But it was frustration with Obama and Hagan that pushed voters like Charlotte’s Nancy Carlton to Tillis. “I want Republicans to take over the Senate,” she said.
Obama inadvertently helped Republicans when he said last month that while he wasn’t on the ballot, “Make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot. Every single one of them.”
Charlotte voter Harold Howe, a surgeon, said his vote for Tillis was “against the direction and policies that are in place that are supported by Kay Hagan.”
National security issues
After months of defending his legislative record, Tillis appeared to gain traction in September as Islamic State militants expanded their reach in the Middle East. That’s when Tillis’s ads turned to national security.
One featured Nancy Anderson, the former mayor of Weddington and a retired Air Force officer and mother of a Marine.
“I’ve been on active duty, a reservist and a military wife,” she said in the ad. “Today, I have the toughest job of all – mother of a Marine. Going to war was hard. But not as hard as sending your kids go off to war.
“It makes me so mad to see how the president’s weakness has allowed the Islamic State to grow. And Sen. Hagan? She just goes right along with him.”
Hagan found herself on the defensive last month over revelations that she’d missed a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on terrorist threats to attend a Manhattan fundraiser. That gave Tillis a new talking point but gave his allies ad fodder.
It sparked new ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS super PAC as well as the Tillis campaign, whose ad featured pictures of terrorists as well as a cocktail glass. Staff writers Ames Alexander, Elisabeth Arriero and Renee Schoof contributed.