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Tillis Defeats Hagan

Thom Tillis

A little more than a decade ago, Thom Tillis was a resident of the town of Cornelius in northern Mecklenburg county. He wanted a bike trail near his house, and, despite knowing nothing about politics, he lobbied the local parks commission. Soon, he won election to it, then the town council, then the State Legislature three times, until he became speaker.

And then last night, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.

“I get to take some time off, but on the campaign trail you have to introduce yourself and ask for the vote,” Tillis said during his victory speech. “Now, I get to change it a little bit, because my name is Thom Tillis and I’m the next senator from the state of North Carolina.”

In a short, meteoric political career, Tillis has never lost an election.

Throughout this campaign, he relentlessly tied Kay Hagan to President Obama and touted his efforts in the legislature. He was energetic and tireless, never a hair or word out of place.

And it worked.

Thom Tillis addresses supporters after winning the race for US Senate.
Credit Dave DeWitt
Thom Tillis addresses supporters after winning the race for U.S. Senate.

“I had some family members ask me how was I so calm with all these attacks,” he said, referring to negative advertisements. “You seem to get more annoyed when the Panthers lose than these attacks," he said.

But Tillis said that he didn't let such ads bother him for a simple reason.

"Because I knew that we were right. I knew that you all and North Carolinians want elected officials who are going to go to Washington and get something done and fulfill promises.”

By many measures, it was a historic race.

Tillis announced his intention to challenge Hagan for the U.S. Senate a year-and-a half ago. He and his supporters, combined with Hagan and her supporters, spent more than $100 million and aired more than 100,000 ads.

This is the most expensive race in the history of the United States and I hope this is the outlier and we back up and get to something that's realistic. - Richard Burr

“No member of the Senate has ever been through a $100 million campaign,” said North Carolina’s senior senator, Republican Richard Burr. “This is the most expensive race in the history of the United States and I hope this is the outlier and we back up and get to something that’s realistic.”

The reality now is that Tillis will join Burr in the U.S. Senate, along with enough newly elected Republicans that they will be the majority party.

Burr says it will be a new day in Washington, and he wants the first order of business to be addressing what he calls “economic insecurity.”

“This administration and this Congress and Senate has had an opportunity to address that for four years and they’ve come up short,” Burr said. “I think it will be the first order of business in a Republican controlled Congress. We can’t assure the president will sign it, but we’ll do everything we can to make sure it’s a bipartisan bill that gets to his desk and he can address whether capital is going to be invested in job creation in this country.”

On this night, those were specifics that most at the Tillis victory celebration weren’t yet ready to focus on.

But the idea of a Republican-controlled Senate has supporters like Sheila Bradley Surrett from Asheville very happy.

“That will feel great,” she said. “To know that the American people and our military and our veterans will have a voice and not be dismissed by the Obama Administration.”

Tillis’ victory continues a Republican surge in North Carolina.

Starting with Burr’s re-election win four years ago, the G.O.P. has won a majority of U.S. House seats, taken control of the Legislature, captured the Governor’s mansion, and now, the other U.S. Senate seat.

“We need to free the American people up to make America great again,” Tillis told supporters. “We need to free the American people up to make it an economic superpower, a military superpower, and an energy superpower. These are the things we are going to go to Washington and do.”

With Tillis’s win over Hagan, the last Democrat to win re-election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina was Sam Ervin in 1968.


While supporters knew the race would be close, nearly everyone at the gathering was shocked by the fact that Hagan didn't win.

And I’m Jessica Jones in Greensboro. At the beginning of the evening, the mood at Senator Hagan’s campaign headquarters at the Greensboro Coliseum was upbeat. But that changed as more precincts reported numbers showing Tillis was gaining ground. Just after midnight, Hagan appeared with her family to give a concession speech:

"I’ve just called Speaker Tillis to congratulate him and tell him we will work with him during this transition period."

Hagan thanked her husband and her children. Then she turned to her supporters, who were holding up the same royal blue Hagan signs used on the campaign trail.

"And I want to thank each and every one of you all of you here tonight, so many people all across North Carolina," said Hagan. "Our supporters, our volunteers, and our incredible staff."

Hagan said she considered every one of them a friend. It was a gracious speech given on a sad night for the Hagan campaign. For weeks, most polls had consistently put Hagan ahead by around three points. While supporters knew the race would be close, nearly everyone at the gathering was shocked by the fact that she didn’t win.

Ann Hummel is a volunteer who worked for months on the campaign. She blames outside groups who were involved in what will go down in history as the most expensive U.S. Senate race so far.  

"I look at the outside influence, with all kinds of commercials that are pure propaganda and slanting the truth, and there are a lot of people that just believe that, they believe what they see on television, and it simply is not the truth," said Hummel.

Hummel was happy that Hagan won Guilford County, where she was working on the campaign. But Hummel says more precincts across the state went Republican more than she had ever anticipated.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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