Scandal Gives GOP Hope in Pivotal Race But Democrat Still Leads

  • Outside groups urged to keep hammering issue on TV
  • Sen. Thom Tillis (R) continues to trail Cal Cunningham (D)

Democrats want to return the North Carolina Senate race back to a battle over the issues, as Republicans press to make the Democratic candidate’s mid-campaign extramarital affair the only issue of the race’s final weeks.

A handful of polls conducted since the revelation of text messages between former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D) and a woman who isn’t his wife have shown him maintaining a lead over first-term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis (R). The most recent, released Wednesday by the New York Times and Siena College, found him ahead 41%-37%, with 15% undecided.

Republicans insist that the more voters know about the scandal, including that the Army Reserve officer is also now under a military investigation, the more likely Tillis wins. The campaign revealed internal polling Wednesday that it said showed the candidates tied among those who’ve heard of the scandal and Tillis up 3 percentage points with those who’ve read a lot about it.

Glen Bolger, Tillis’ pollster, conceded Tillis was down in late September but said the scandal and investigation “has made this a close race again.”

“The job of the Tillis campaign and his allies is to continue spotlighting all of the aspects of this,” Bolger wrote on Twitter, in a message aimed partially at supportive outside groups running TV ads in the state.

A Cunningham campaign ad

A half-dozen ads spotlighting the drama from GOP-aligned groups have already aired in the two weeks since the news broke.

Democrats are attempting to change the subject. A Democratic super PAC quickly launched an ad tying Tillis to “corruption” and “scandal,” while Cunningham released a TV ad this week urging voters — recently hit with new negative information about him — to “remember” that “health care is on the ballot,” and that “a vote for Cal Cunningham is a vote for health care.”

During a press call with reporters, Cunningham dodged multiple questions on whether he had other affairs. Cunningham campaign manager Devan Barber didn’t mention the affair in a memo released Tuesday and insisted “the fundamentals in this race continue to favor Cal.”

“Our race continues to be about the issues impacting North Carolinians, from health care to economic relief during COVID-19,” he said in an Oct. 13 memo. “That’s bad for Senator Tillis.”

The messages from both sides won’t matter for many voters. Nearly half a million voters have already cast their absentee ballots, according to the Secretary of State. As for the others, Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper said voters in the state are as polarized as elsewhere in the country and likely to stick with their party regardless of the scandal, but that more revelations about the extent of Cunningham’s infidelity will make it difficult for the Democrats to sweep it aside.

“It’s too early to conclude that North Carolinians don’t care,” Cooper said. “But it’s not going to upend the race by itself.”

By the Numbers

Cunningham’s 4-point edge in the New York Times/Siena College poll matched Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump. Other polls released Tuesday and Wednesday from Ipsos, Susquehanna Polling & Research, and Monmouth University found Cunningham up between 2 and 5 points.

The Monmouth and New York Times/Siena polls found Cunningham’s favorability dipped after the scandal. GOP strategist Dee Stewart said the news clashed with Cunningham’s curated image of an anti-corruption candidate with a military record, and that’s where Republicans see an opening.

“Many voters believe his actions undermine the central premise of his campaign,” Stewart said.

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

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

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