Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory on Tuesday was elected North Carolina's first Republican governor in 20 years, capturing the state's highest office four years after barely falling short against Democrat Beverly Perdue.
With 80 percent of the precincts reporting, McCrory had 55 percent of the vote compared to less than 43 percent for Democrat Walter Dalton, according to unofficial results. Libertarian Barbara Howe had slightly more than 2 percent.
"Not many people are given a second chance, and I got a second chance," McCrory said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday night, adding that voters also "got a second chance to retract a potential mistake that they made in 2008."
McCrory's victory over the sitting lieutenant governor means McCrory, a former Duke Energy Corp. manager, now must act upon his long-standing criticisms that the Democratic establishment broke state government and is to blame for a 9.6 percent unemployment rate that is among the nation's highest. With McCrory's victory, Republicans were poised to take control of both the legislative and executive branches of government for the first time in more than a century.
"We celebrate tonight, but go to work tomorrow," McCrory said.
McCrory, 56, will be judged on fulfilling pledges to improve the economy and public education without necessarily spending more tax money. He also pledged to expand energy exploration and create a more customer-friendly state government.
The Republican also has vowed to modernize the state's tax system. McCrory cautioned voters against expecting quick fixes.
He will take the oath of office in January, five years after he first announced he was running for governor as a late arriver to the 2008 GOP primary contest. He won the 2008 primary but lost by 3 percentage points to Perdue, then the state's lieutenant governor.
McCrory never left the political stage after the loss — his first defeat ever — and he stayed involved in GOP politics. He completed a record 14 years as Charlotte mayor in 2009, became a regular on the Republican chicken-dinner circuit and participated in some tea-party backed activities. He moved slightly to the right politically to clear this year's primary field of significant candidates and lined up early support from governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
McCrory also benefited from Perdue's surprise decision in January not to seek re-election in the face of low poll numbers, a sputtering economy and a campaign finance investigation that led to criminal charges against former Perdue aides and donors.
Dalton, a former state senator from Rutherfordton who was elected lieutenant governor in 2008, stepped in but was behind from the start after winning a tough Democratic primary. McCrory's campaign outraised Dalton's 4-to-1 in the summer and early fall, limiting the Democrat's ability to get his message out.
McCrory said Perdue and Dalton called him Tuesday evening.
"We knew it was tough when we got in this race and we did the most we could with limited resources," Dalton told supporters Tuesday evening at a downtown Raleigh hotel. But he added "we always ran to win and I am proud of that."
Voters who called themselves moderate split between McCrory and Dalton, and the Republican even picked up about one in eight votes of those who call themselves liberal, according to the results of exit polls conducted for The Associated Press. Six in ten voters said the economy was the most important issue in the election, and McCrory won three out of five of those votes.
Dalton accused McCrory during the campaign of planning to raise taxes on the middle class and supporting GOP education and health care spending cuts at the General Assembly. Dalton also tried, with some success, to raise questions about McCrory's work at a Charlotte law firm and why McCrory refused to release his tax returns.
But the public's familiarity with McCrory made him the quasi-incumbent. He set the campaign's tone through TV ads portraying himself as a post-partisan outsider and by dismissing Dalton's accusations as a sign of desperation.
McCrory said he's proud of running a positive campaign and "think it shows that a positive campaign can actually work in politics."
"We want to send a signal not just to the rest of the state but also the rest of the country that constructive dialogue in a campaign can be successful," McCrory said.
The Republican Governors Association also poured money into the race early to reinforce McCrory's allegations that Dalton would raise the sales tax if elected. Dalton also was hurt by a series of political scandals and controversies over the past decade that largely involved fellow Democrats, including Perdue and her predecessor, Mike Easley.
McCrory will become the first Republican governor since Jim Martin was elected to two terms and left office in early 1993. The only other GOP governor since 1901 was Jim Holshouser in the mid-1970s. The GOP would be in control of the Legislature and executive branch for the first time since 1870 if Republicans held onto majorities in both General Assembly chambers.
While Martin was from Mecklenburg County, a Charlotte resident hasn't been elected governor since Cameron Morrison in 1920.
Howe needed at least 2 percent of the vote, so the Libertarian Party can remain an official party for the next four years and avoid a costly petition process to return to the ballot in 2016.