RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis has won reelection to his U.S. Senate seat, confirming that Democrats must now win both runoff races in Georgia in January if they are to seize Senate control from the GOP.
Tillis earned a second Senate term by defeating Democrat Cal Cunningham, whose campaign outraised Tillis during 2020.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Tillis led Cunningham by about 94,400 votes, from among more than 5.4 million votes counted so far. The Associated Press declared Tillis the winner on Wednesday after determining there weren’t enough outstanding votes for Cunningham to catch him. Cunningham conceded the race on Tuesday, saying “the voters have spoken” and it was clear Tillis had won.
North Carolina election officials said on Wednesday they have a little more than 44,000 votes left to count, including provisional ballots. Some 92,300 voters who requested ballots have not returned them. Counties will accept absentee ballots postmarked by Election Day until Thursday. However, only a few thousand absentee ballots have arrived at election offices since Election Day. County election boards will finalize totals Friday.
Tillis’ victory, combined with Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan’s reelection win in Alaska earlier Wednesday, gives the GOP at least 50 seats in the chamber early next year. But Senate partisan control won’t be decided until two runoffs are held in Georgia on Jan. 5. Two Democratic wins in the runoffs would create a 50-50 Senate, where Democratic Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would wield the tiebreaking vote.
Tillis, who ran on a platform highlighting in part his support of President Donald Trump's 2017 tax cuts and judicial nominees, also benefited from fallout over a Cunningham sex scandal in the campaign’s final month. Cunningham, a U.S. Army reservist and former state legislator, admitted to a recent extramarital relationship with a public relations consultant. Tillis said Cunningham’s emphasis on his personal story in the campaign made the misconduct a defining issue.
Tillis, 60, a former IBM consultant and state House speaker, also was one of Trump’s strongest defenders during impeachment. He overcame criticisms by the GOP base last year when he initially took a stance opposite the president on how to fund the border wall. Tillis later changed his mind.
Tillis was a consistent proponent of wearing masks during the pandemic but had to apologize for taking them off at White House events. Tillis tested positive for COVID-19 in early October.
The race for president in North Carolina was still too early to call. As of Wednesday, Trump led Democrat Joe Biden by about 73,200 votes. Absentee and provisional votes counted since Election Day have favored Biden, shrinking Trump’s lead by 3,500 votes. The AP will reassess the race once the deadline to return absentee ballots passes on Thursday.