GREENSBORO — Incumbent U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole lost her re-election bid Tuesday night to state Sen. Kay Hagan, done in by a combination of Hagan's tireless campaigning, millions of dollars from national Democrats and Barack Obama's strong emphasis on North Carolina.
It was an upset virtually unthinkable just a year ago, when Democrats scrambled to find a challenger to take on the well-financed and well-known Dole.
Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, successfully tied Dole to President Bush, whose popularity has plummeted in the six years since Dole was hand-picked by the White House to run for the Senate. Dole was never able to overcome both her voting record and an infusion of millions of dollars from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
With 50 of 100 counties reporting, Hagan led Dole by 52.3 to 44.6 percent. Libertarian Christopher Cole had 3.1 percent.
Dole entered Salisbury's historic train depot late Tuesday night with her husband, Bob, as 200 supporters stood and cheered. She acknowledged a hard-fought campaign in which, she said, tens of millions of dollars poured into the state to fight her re-election.
“I'm not happy with the tone that this campaign has acquired,” she said, referring to a barrage of negative advertising from both sides, “but I will say that I will never regret fighting as hard as I could for the privilege of continuing to serve you.”
In Greensboro, several hundred Hagan supporters erupted into cheers when a network called the election for Hagan.
“I thought it would be a lot closer,” said Tony Hunt of Raeford. “I think some of the last advertising by Sen. Dole really hurt her. It changed some undecided voters.”
For many voters, the messages against Dole resonated. Exit polls showed Hagan did well among blacks, women and young voters; Dole did better among older voters, the Associated Press said.
“I was not happy with her,” said Janice Henderson, 67, of Raleigh. “I don't think we got our money's worth out of her.”
In the past few months, as Dole saw her lead slip in the polls and the economy faltered, national pundits moved the race from “leaning Republican” to “toss-up.”
Meanwhile, Hagan blanketed the state with campaign stops. She was helped by ads from the national Democrats, most notably its “Rocking Chairs” ad showing two elderly men arguing whether Dole is “92 or 93.” They were talking about her effectiveness ranking and her voting percentage with Bush. But the swipe at Dole's age – she is 72 – was hardly veiled.
Last week, the race took another nasty turn. Dole aired a TV ad that accused Hagan of taking “godless money” at a Boston fundraiser and linking her to an atheist group called the Godless Americans political action committee. The ad ended with a picture of Hagan and a woman's voiceover saying, “There is no God.”
Hagan, who is an elder in her Presbyterian church and a former Sunday school teacher, responded with a lawsuit and her own ad, declaring, “I believe in God.”
Dole's ad was widely panned, and some voters were turned off, too.
“The nail in the coffin was the Godless Americans thing,” said Andre Wilson, 23, of Durham, who supported Hagan. He researched both candidates but was really put off by Dole's ad.
But at Dole's rally late Tuesday, supporter Blake Jarman, 24, said Dole should have responded more aggressively to Hagan's attacks earlier in the campaign.
He also defended the controversial ad about Hagan's “godless money.”
“American needs to know what their candidate stands for and where they get their money from,” Jarman said.
Dole said she was proud of her accomplishments and it has “been the highest honor in my life to be elected the first female U.S. senator in North Carolina history.”
She recapped her career achievements, including jobs in the White House and as secretary of labor and transportation, and leading the American Red Cross. She asked her supporters to pray for Hagan's successful transition to the Senate seat, but Dole said she's not ready for retirement.
And, in an apparent reference to Hagan's ads suggesting the senator spent little time in the state she represented, Dole added: “Salisbury has always been my rock of Gibraltar, and my home has always been Salisbury.”
Both campaigns and their supporters put out a wealth of advertising, much of it negative. An Elon University poll conducted a week ago showed that 48 percent of those polled had a negative opinion of Dole's campaign, while 38 percent held a negative opinion of Hagan's campaign.
Dole was expected a year ago to easily win re-election. It would have been hard for any challenger to overcome the overwhelming name recognition of Dole, who ran for president in 2000 and served in the administrations of five presidents.
“Dole assumed, wrongly, that it wasn't competitive and that she wouldn't have a serious opponent,” said Ted Arrington, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte. “She waited too long to get going.”
(Staff writers Wade Rawlins, Dan Kane, Mark Johnson, Benjamin Niolet and Bruce Henderson contributed to this report.)