Extramarital Scandal, Virus Diagnosis Jolt Tight Senate Race

  • Democrat Cunningham had relationship with woman not his wife
  • Incumbent Tillis quarantines after testing positive for coronavirus

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Republicans seized on romantic extramarital text messages sent by North Carolina Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, quickly airing an ad highlighting the scandal in an effort to upend one of the most competitive Senate races.

The Senate Leadership Fund spot, launched Tuesday morning, concludes with the line, “What else is he hiding?” Republicans called on Cunningham to release all the text messages to the California-based public affairs consultant. And the AP subsequently reported that Arlene Guzman Todd said she had one intimate encounter with Cunningham in July.

Republicans hope the latest developments bolster the incumbent Thom Tillis, who has narrowly trailed in most polls and is now grappling with his own problems after testing positive for the coronavirus. The race was already drawing considerable attention and money well before the bombshell developments, as its outcome could determine which party controls the Senate next year.

Al Drago/Bloomberg
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is in a competitive re-election race, recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

Voting is already well underway in the state. More than 386,000 absentee mail ballots had been returned and accepted as of Oct. 5.

Democrats are sticking by Cunningham, banking that his message on health care will allow voters to look past the relationship. Morgan Jackson, a consultant working for Cunningham, said as long as coronavirus is a top issue for voters Tillis, Trump, and other Republicans won’t fare well.

“If the issue stays on coronavirus, it’s a very bad place for Republicans,” Jackson said.

In a statement, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee focused on Cunningham’s support for ensuring health coverage for pre-existing conditions, bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, and helping the country recover from the coronavirus.

Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Democratic leadership, hit back on Cunningham’s behalf in a TV ad Wednesday that ties Tillis to “corruption” and “scandal,” related to being the top recipient of contributions from what the Washington Post reported last month was a straw-donor scheme involving Louis DeJoy, who’s now head of the U.S. Postal Service.

But the extramarital scandal could cost Cunningham the support of moderate and independent women, a key demographic to winning North Carolina, said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the Republican Main Street Partnership PAC, who linked Cunningham’s actions to President Donald Trump.

“It’s the same things they don’t like about Trump,” she said. “This is going to be instrumental to this race and could be the future of the Senate.”

A Cunningham campaign ad

‘Deeply Sorry’

Cunningham owned up to sending the texts and apologized soon after the story broke late last week. His campaign pointed to the same statement when asked for comment by the AP for its latest story.

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” Cunningham said in an Oct. 2 statement.

North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley called on Cunningham to release all of the text messages between himself and Guzman Todd.

“Cunningham needs to stop hiding in his windowless basement and answer questions about this serious issue,” Whatley said in a statement.

Cunningham led Tillis by 6 percentage points in a poll conducted Sunday and Monday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm.

Tillis in Quarantine

Tillis went into quarantine in his home after announcing Oct. 2 he tested positive for the virus. Staff members were tested — as of Monday all were negative, according to the campaign.

Unlike Trump, Tillis is often seen wearing a mask, including at a Sept. 26 Rose Garden event in which Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. A number of attendees later tested positive for the virus.

But he’s also been seen in close proximity to others without a mask on, such as when Trump accepted the Republican nomination at the White House in August. Tillis later apologized, saying he fell short of his own standards.

Tillis and Cunningham have sought to appeal to moderate and independent voters, while attempting to brand the other as a rubber stamp for their respective parties. Trump carried the state by 4 points in 2016 and currently trails Democratic nominee Joe Biden narrowly in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Cunningham has held a slight lead in polls and fundraising throughout most of the race. As of Wednesday, Cunningham led by 5 points in the RCP average of eight polls conducted since mid-September.

He announced last week raising a staggering $28.3 million from July through September. Tillis hasn’t released any details from his third-quarter report, which is due to the Federal Election Commission next week.

Polls from the non-profit Civitas Institute in North Carolina show a gap between how well the candidates fare with their party: 64% of conservatives said they would probably or definitely vote for Tillis, while 85% of liberals said the same for Cunningham. Tillis isn’t gaining new voters, said Civitas Institute CEO Donald Bryson.

“In terms of party loyalty, he’s got a problem,” Bryson said. “While he’s trying to appeal to the middle, he’s losing the same amount of ground to his right.”

Part of Tillis’ underwhelming performance in his own party stems from missteps such as penning a Washington Post op-ed in February 2019 opposing Trump’s national emergency declaration to bypass Congress to pay for a wall on the border with Mexico — and then changing his mind and voting against a resolution to block the emergency declaration.

Tillis is banking on Barrett’s confirmation hearings to help lift his numbers among Republicans. A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tillis will question the nominee during the hearings beginning Oct. 12, if his health permits.

“The Supreme Court, we believe, is a benefit to us,” Tillis spokesman Andrew Romeo said. “It energizes people to vote for Senator Tillis.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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