Sen. Jesse Helms (R) defeated Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) in the long, bitter and costly senate rate that Hunt had called a referendum on the new right.
Helms claimed victory at 11:15 p.m. after his slim, early lead grew to 55 to 45 percent over Hunt and Republicans swept the state on President Reagan's coattails.
Long lines clogged North Carolina polling places, and most metropolitan areas extended voting one hour past the normal 7:30 p.m. deadline.
The first precincts to report went to Helms by the smallest of margins.
As the votes came in, however, the traditionally Democratic state went heavily Republican, voting not only for Helms and Reagan but also electing James G. Martin as North Carolina's first Republican governor in this century.
Martin's defeat of Democrat Rufus Edmisten completed a GOP sweep of a state where Democrats hold a 3-to-1 registration edge.
The Republican trend was so broad that five incumbant Democratic members of Congress were left dangling in races too close to call.
As hundreds of supporters chanted, "Jesse, Jesse, Jesse," Helms told his jubilant supporters that, "the cruel hoax of liberal politics has run its course for the last time."
Waving a copy of a year-old Washington Post story reporting he was in political trouble, Helms declared, "We have sent a signal through the world that North Carolina is a conservative, God-fearing state . . . a state where people believe in school prayer and they want to restore it.
"This is a state where people believe in the sanctity of human life," Helms told the throng. "A state that believes that bloated federal government is a threat to freedom."
With his wife, children, grandchildren and his black press secretary Claude A. Allen at his side, Helms, 63, made an emotional plea to blacks who had voted overwhelmingly against him. "I say to the black citizens, whether or not you voted for me, you have my handshake of sincere friendship."
Helms, the leader of New Right forces in the Senate, and Hunt, who cast the race as a referendum on "right-wing extremism" have battled neck and neck for months in the longest and most expensive Senate race in American history.
Exit polls of 2,500 North Carolina voters showed Helms won a majority among whites, males, and the older and more affluent voters of the state.
Hunt carried the women's vote by 57 to 43 percent; he captured a slim majority of voters age 49 and under and won almost two-thirds of the poor votes.
Voters who called themselves born-again Christians split 60 to 40 for Helms while those who said they are conservatives went 3 to 1 for him.
Facing the toughest challenge of his career in his bid for a third Senate term, Helms held a narrow lead in public opinion polls during the campaign's closing days and consolidated his victory on the overwhelming Republican triumph in the Tar Heel State.
The victory reaffirmed Helms' role as the leader of New Right conservatives -- the nation's foremost champion of antiabortion legislation and school prayer.
For Hunt, 47, the defeat was a serious setback for his effort to become one of the Democratic Party's promising new leaders and a spokesman for the New South.
Both candidates characterized the campaign in apocalyptic terms.
Helms said his candidacy represented no less than "the conservative cause, the free enterprise cause, but most of all the cause of decency, honor and spiritual and moral cleanliness in America today."
Hunt said a victory for him would mean that "North Carolina rejects the leadership of right-wing politics in America and elects a senator out of the progressive, fiscally responsible tradition of the Democratic Party."
As the multimillion dollar campaign climaxed, North Carolina voters breathed a collective sigh of relief and went to the polls in record numbers.
"I'm just glad it's over. It got downright trashy," said Reuben Whitfield, a registered Democrat who voted for Helms. "I hate to see so much dirt. Like my daddy used to say, there's a little good in the worst of us."
"If anyone else had been running, I would have voted for him," said a middle-aged Democrat. "They were both very childish, spending all of their time digging up dirt on the other guy."
The Helms-Hunt race has been going full throttle for almost two years, deeply polarizing voters and casting a sour pall over the state.
The battle of political giants was a classic liberal-conservative confrontation in style and personality, fought bitterly to the very end.
Helms, on the final day of the campaign, linked Hunt to "homosexuals, labor union bosses and crooks."
"The man is not to be trusted," he said. "And I hope that he never has another day in office after he's finished his term as governor."
Only slightly less vitriolic, Hunt accused Helms of being a "radical right-wing extremist" who had waged a campaign of "negative ads, dirty tricks and personal smears."
No state has ever been inundated with so much political advertising. Helms' television ads aired 5,259 times in the last five weeks alone; Hunt ads were shown 2,536 times. Hunt spent more than $8 million on the campaign; Helms more than $13 million.
Hunt has repeatedly attacked Helms' ties to Moral Majority leader Jerry L. Falwell and other fundamentalists and accused Helms of putting their agenda ahead of the state's needs.
However, he and his aides have said, "This is not a good year for Democrats."
Privately they have complained that the presidential candidacy of Walter F. Mondale has dragged their effort down. Helms has capitalized on this by repeatedly calling Hunt a "Mondale liberal."
"If Mondale were within 10 percentage points here I wouldn't be in any trouble," Hunt said at one point.