WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrat Cal Cunningham, who had been considered the leader for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina until his campaign was undermined by a sex scandal, on Tuesday conceded the closely fought contest to Republican incumbent Thom Tillis.
Edison Research also called the race for Tillis. The result essentially confirms that control of the Senate — and with it the power to support or block much of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda — will be decided in a pair of Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia.
Cunningham’s concession a week after the Nov. 3 election gives Tillis a second six-year term in the Senate and ends a race that Democrats had once seen as one of their best shots to take control of the upper chamber of Congress.
“The voters have spoken and I respect their decision,” Cunningham, 47, a former state senator, said in a statement after he called Tillis to congratulate him.
Tillis, 60, who trailed Cunningham in pre-election opinion polls and won re-election by less than 2 percentage points, said he was humbled by the victory.
“I pledge to continue keeping my promises and delivering results,” Tillis posted on Twitter. “This was a hard-fought campaign and I wish nothing but the best to Cal and his family going forward.”
In October, Cunningham confirmed that he had exchanged sexually suggestive messages with a woman who was not his wife and apologized for his behavior.
Tillis hammered away at Cunningham in the closing weeks of the campaign, alleging that the Democrat lacked the judgment and character necessary for the Senate.
If Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan also wins re-election — as he leads with 62% of the vote with 61% of all ballots counted — that will give Republicans exactly half of the Senate’s 100 seats.
Democrats would then need to win both contests in Georgia — which has not elected a Democratic senator in two decades — to evenly divide the chamber and give Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.
“Our race may be over, but the fight to hold a GOP majority in the U.S. Senate is far from finished,” Tillis said in a tweet that urged supporters to donate money to the Georgia re-election campaigns of Republican Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
The two Republicans face challenges for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone, Chris Reese and Aurora Ellis)