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In blow to Democrats, Republican Thom Tillis wins re-election in N.C. Senate race, NBC News projects

Cunningham’s concession heightens the stakes in the outcomes of Georgia's Senate races, which appear likely to determine control of the Senate.
Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, center, and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., right, wait before a televised debate Oct. 1 in Raleigh.Gerry Broome / AP

Democrat Cal Cunningham conceded to Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in the North Carolina race Tuesday, increasing the stakes in the outcomes of Georgia's Senate races, which appear likely to determine control of the chamber.

NBC News had projected the race as too close to call, but declared Tillis the winner shortly after Cunningham conceded the race. The win gives Republicans 49 seats in the Senate, while Democrats have 48, with two races in Georgia and one in Alaska still outstanding.

“I just called Senator Tillis to congratulate him on winning re-election to a second term in the U.S. Senate and wished him and his family the best in their continued service in the months and years ahead," Cunningham said in a statement. “The voters have spoken and I respect their decision."

"While the results of this election suggest there remain deep political divisions in our state and nation," he added, "the more complete story of our country lies in what unites us: our faith and sense of confidence in our democracy, our civic values and common humanity, our shared aspiration to care for one another, and our belief that we live in a country that does exceptional things."

Democrats would need to win two of the three remaining Senate contests to gain control of the chamber — with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote.

Democratic candidates are currently trailing in the Alaska race and one of the Georgia races. The other Georgia race, between Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock is headed towards a runoff on Jan. 5.

The second Georgia race, between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, appears that it might be headed to a Jan. 5 runoff as well. Perdue is hovering below the 50 percent mark needed to win the race outright, but NBC News has not yet made a projection in that race.

Democrats had had high hopes of unseating Tillis. Tillis had consistently lagged behind Cunningham in polling in the weeks before the election, even after Cunningham was caught in a sexting scandal. When the votes started being counted, however, Tillis maintained a consistent lead and successfully defended a seat that had flipped the past two elections. In 2014, he ousted Democrat Kay Hagan, who had six years earlier booted Elizabeth Dole, wife of the 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole.

As of Tuesday, with 97 percent of the vote in, Tillis was leading Cunningham by almost 100,000 votes. Democrat Joe Biden, meanwhile, became president-elect Saturday after winning the pivotal state of Pennsylvania, NBC News projected.

Tillis didn't wait for network projections — he declared victory after the polls closed on Election Day.

“We did it against all the odds, right? Have we heard this before? 'You’re down in the polls and you have no chance of victory'" he told supporters on Election Day, calling his victory "stunning." We're “doing our part to save the Senate," he said.

Cunningham and Tillis were locked in a spirited campaign fighting for independents, mainly by accusing each other of being beholden to their party's leadership, when a trio of surprises on Oct. 2 shook the race.

That day, President Donald Trump was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for Covid-19 treatment and Tillis revealed that he, too, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Tillis had been among those who attended a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. That White House gathering on Sept. 26 was later called a "superspreader event" by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert.

Even though Tillis, 60, is generally among the most pro-mask-wearing Republicans on Capitol Hill, the outbreak brought more attention to voter displeasure with Trump and the GOP's handling of the pandemic.

Then hours later, Cunningham was forced to admit that he had exchanged intimate text messages with a California political strategist who is not his wife.

Cunningham, 44, apologized for the sexting scandal and said disclosure of the electronic chats "hurt my family" and "disappointed my friends."

While the texts were not graphic, they were highly embarrassing for Cunningham, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel whose campaign pushed him as a churchgoing, small-town North Carolina native.

Coming into Tuesday night, Democrats viewed North Carolina as crucial not only to taking the White House and the Senate, but also as part of their long-term hopes of regaining national relevance in the South.

Higher education among white voters has become one of the great fault lines of American politics, and North Carolina, flush with financial sector and tech industry jobs, is one of three Southern states where more than 30 percent of adults are college grads.

Among the state's residents 25 and older, 30.5 percent have at least a bachelor's degree, a rate topped in the South only by Virginia and virtually equaled by Georgia.

Trump won in 2016 despite losing college graduates by 10 percentage points to Hillary Clinton, according to NBC exit polls. By contrast, in 2004 when President George W. Bush fended off Democratic challenger John Kerry to win re-election, the candidates fought over college grads to a 49-49 draw.

Tillis won by driving up big numbers in rural and exurban counties, where GOP-friendly voters enthusiastically came out to back Trump at the top of the ticket.

For example, with 95 percent of the vote counted in Gaston County, Tillis led Cunningham by nearly 30,000 votes. Back in 2014, during that mid-term election, Tillis beat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan by a little more than 14,000 votes.

In Johnston County, with 95 percent counted, Tillis led Cunningham by nearly 25,000 votes. He won that county by 13,000 six years earlier.