RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republican Thom Tillis unseated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan on Tuesday, winning a lengthy, expensive race in North Carolina after linking Hagan to President Barack Obama and highlighting his own record of accomplishments while leading the state legislature.
The former IBM consultant and architect of the GOP takeover of North Carolina state government defeated the first-term incumbent Hagan, who unsuccessfully tried to turn the race into a referendum on Tillis' governance in Raleigh.
Tillis overcame that by emphasizing cuts to tax rates and regulations and a large average pay raise for teachers last summer.
With nearly all of the vote counted, unofficial returns showed Tillis with 49 percent of the vote compared to 47 percent for Hagan, a margin of roughly 50,000 votes. Libertarian Party nominee Sean Haugh had almost 4 percent. The victory secured the majority for Republicans in the U.S. Senate.
Although Tillis had to win an eight-candidate primary in May, his announced candidacy 18 months ago had the state House speaker in the sights of Hagan's campaign and her allies ever since.
These developments made the race the nation's most pricey Senate campaign, with candidates and outside groups spending $108 million, $77 million of which came from independent organizations supporting or opposing the candidates, The Sunlight Foundation said.
"We didn't bend. We won," Tillis told supporters in Charlotte while delivering his acceptance speech. "We have swept this nation with a compelling Senate majority."
While Tillis was vastly outspent by Hagan, conservative super PACs and national Republicans made up much of the difference by running television ads backing Tillis or criticizing Hagan, for close to a year.
Tillis ran on a platform focused on promises. He contrasted legislative and fiscal policies he says he promised to complete when Republicans took over the legislature following the 2010 elections with what he considered Hagan's empty resume since being elected in 2008.
Hagan said late Tuesday to supporters in Greensboro that she had called Tillis to congratulate him. She said she worked hard during her six years to help working families.
"Those are the families that still need a voice," Hagan said, surrounded by family on stage. "This campaign has ended, but our work to improve the lives of North Carolinians and to build an economy that works for everyone isn't over."
Tillis said Hagan broke her promises by siding with Obama more than 95 percent of the time when just six years earlier Hagan had criticized then-Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole for being too closely aligned with President George W. Bush.
"By Kay's own standard she's failed the people of North Carolina," Tillis said during one of their three TV debates. "Kay promised that she'd be different, but she broke her promise."
Tillis also slammed Hagan's record on national security and criticized her for not attending Senate Armed Services Committee meetings enough as the threat from the Islamic State group neared. Tillis said Hagan failed to demand a stronger foreign policy and urge Obama to tackle the approaching problem.
Tillis withstood a barrage of ads from Hagan and allies repeatedly accusing him of cutting income tax rates to benefit the wealthy, slashing public education funding and refusing to expand Medicaid to the working poor. She also energized black voters while blaming Tillis for an elections overhaul law that cut the number of early-voting days and eliminated same-day registration during the period.
Registered Democrat Liz Sorrell of Cary, a retired N.C. State University employee, said she voted for Tillis because of Obama's signature health care law, which Hagan supported. She said a relative with a heart condition is paying much more for insurance since the law took effect.
"I don't think that the Affordable Care Act for instance covered the small business people," Sorrell said. "I was going to vote for her before I ran into this."
While Tillis is considered part of the GOP's moderate business wing, social conservatives came to his side when he helped pass abortion restrictions and got a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the statewide ballot in 2012. Voters approved the amendment, which was struck down by federal judges last month.
A native of Florida who spent his high school years in Tennessee, the 54-year-old Tillis rose through the business world to become a consultant at IBM Global Business Services and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He first joined the Cornelius town commission in the early 2000s and was elected to the state House in 2006. He became speaker after the 2010 elections put Republicans in charge of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in 140 years.
Tillis' victory puts all top North Carolina government positions in Republicans hands: governor, both U.S. Senate seats and leadership of the state House and Senate.