RALEIGH, N.C. -- Kay Hagan claimed victory tonight over incumbent Elizabeth Dole in the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina.
With 63 of 100 counties reporting, Hagan led Dole by 52 to 45 percent. Libertarian Christopher Cole had 3 percent.
“Believe me, it has been an honor and a joy to represent the people of North Carolina in the U.S. Senate,” Dole said in a concession speech at the historic train depot in Salisbury. “I’ve done my level best to make you proud.”
In her victory speech in Greensboro, Hagan said, "What we were able to accomplish in a little more than a year shows how hungry people are for a change. So much has gone off-course for the last eight years, and it will take all of us working together to get it turned around again."
The race was characterized by massive spending by outside groups and a barrage of negative ads. In advertisements and campaign stops in the past six months, Hagan repeatedly tied Dole to President Bush and said the incumbent had been ineffective in the Senate.
In the past few months, as Dole slowly saw her lead slip in the polls, national pundits moved the race from "leaning Republican" to "toss-up."
Then last week, Dole aired a TV ad that accused Hagan of taking "godless money" at a Boston fundraiser hosted by a couple active in an atheist group that lobbies for the separation of church and state. The ad ended with a picture of Hagan and a woman's voiceover saying, "There is no God."
Hagan, in fact, is an elder in her Presbyterian church and a former Sunday School teacher. She responded with a lawsuit and her own ad, declaring, "I believe in God."
Dole's ad was slammed not only by Democrats but by GOP pundits, who called it an act of desperation. Some voters, too, were upset.
"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 Dole has fans too, among them Alison Davis, 49, of Durham. "I'm a one-issue voter. I have three children with autism," Davis said.
Last year she went Washington to talk about autism with her representatives in Congress. Staffers for Dole spent hours with her, asking how she dealt with insurance, education and other issues.
"Kay Hagan's people never called me back," Davis said, explaining why she voted for Dole.
Dole, a daughter of North Carolina who hasn't lived here in three decades, 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 1999 and worked in the administration of five presidents.
Indeed, Democrat after Democrat declined to run, from Gov. Mike Easley to U.S. Rep. Brad Miller of Raleigh. Even Hagan, chairwoman of the state Senate's budget committee, initially took a pass.
Hagan jumped in later and was backed immediately by the national party. Experienced Capitol Hill staffers moved to North Carolina to help run her campaign. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee signaled early that it would throw millions of dollars into the race, and Hagan was welcomed at fundraisers around the country.
"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."
The onslaught against Dole began with the now-infamous Rocking Chair ad, in which two elderly gentlemen rocked on the porch of a country store, arguing whether Dole is "92 or 93." They were talking about her national effectiveness ranking and her voting percentage with President Bush. But the swipe at Dole's age -- she is 72 -- was hardly veiled.
Dole also was vulnerable because of the little amount of time she spent in North Carolina. Dole lives in Washington with her husband, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, and wasn't a regular on the treks back home that many members of Congress make each weekend.