Tillis, a first-term senator who narrowly won his seat in a GOP wave six years ago, faced persistent concerns about support from Republican base voters and even the threat of a primary challenge, all of which weakened his standing in a tightly divided state even before the election year arrived.
But the race shifted dramatically in a 48-hour period in early October. Tillis tested positive for Covid-19 and was forced to quarantine at a critical juncture. Just hours later, Cunningham’s campaign confirmed he had sent illicit text messages to a woman who was not his wife. Revelation of the affair upended Cunningham’s campaign, forcing him to apologize and kicking off a period of underground campaigning.
The Democrat did Zoom events and eventually reemerged for in person campaigning, but he repeatedly declined to answer questions about his affair or sit for interviews with members of the press.
Tillis and GOP allies flooded the race with late spending highlighting the affair and questioning Cunningham’s character and fitness for office. Cunningham, meanwhile, kept his campaign focused on health care and Tillis’ Senate record. Cunningham was boosted by a massive spending disparity: The Democrat raised nearly $48 million for the election through mid-October, compared to just $23 million for Tillis.
The race remained uncalled for a week after Election Day, with Tillis leading Cunningham but a number of absentee ballots still left to count. The latest tally from The Associated Press, which had not called the race when Cunningham conceded, showed Tillis ahead by roughly 95,000 votes, or less than 2 percentage points.
“The voters have spoken, and I respect their decision,” Cunningham said in a statement, adding that the election results “suggest that there remain deep political divisions in our state and nation.”
Tillis, in a statement, said he was “incredibly humbled” by his victory.
“This was a hard-fought campaign, and I wish nothing but the best to Cal and his family going forward,” said Tillis.