RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — Dual October surprises in North Carolina are rocking the battleground state’s tight race for U.S. Senate, less than four weeks from Election Day.
Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, who is married, admitted on Friday to exchanging romantic texts with a political consultant from California after sexual messages between the candidate and Arlene Guzman Todd were made public on NationalFile.com.
"I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry. The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family's privacy be respected in this personal matter,” Cunningham said in a statement on Friday.
The scandal surfaced just hours after Cunningham’s opponent, incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis, announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
Todd later confirmed that she and Cunningham had been “intimate” in July, according to an Associated Press report.
Cunningham, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and married father of two, has long projected a wholesome image.
“He seemed to be stable and if you asked someone to draw up a Democratic nominee who could win a swing state like North Carolina, Cunningham would be right out of central casting,” political scientist Chris Cooper told Courthouse News on Wednesday.
Cooper, who is the head of the Department of Political Science & Public Affairs at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, said the spotlight on the Democrat’s extramarital behavior is challenging that image.
The scandal is not likely to pull Democratic voters away from their party’s candidate, Cooper said, and it is certainly not going to pull Republican voters toward him.
Additionally, about 400,000 North Carolina residents have already cast their ballots.
“So what is left are the independent and swing voters,” Cooper said, citing a recent Meredith College poll that shows 12% of voters were still undecided as of the end of September.
“Could it be enough to make a difference in the end?” Cooper added. “Maybe.”
After Cunningham garnered record sums in fundraising, Cooper said he is interested to see how this news cycle will affect the decisions of donors who may either decide to spend more money on the Democrat’s campaign out of fear of losing or choose to give less.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the U.S. Senate and polls are showing a tight race between the North Carolina contenders. Cunningham has been throughout the past several months and continues to hold onto a slight edge. The Meredith College poll has him up 1.3 percentage points over Tillis.
Both candidates’ campaigns have been widely watched because the victor of the key battleground state race will play a significant role in determining which party seizes control of Congress’ upper chamber.
As the Nov. 3 election nears, both parties are fighting for control of the narrative in North Carolina.
“And right now, Cunningham is losing that battle,” Cooper said. “Cunningham needs to stop the bleeding, stop the news cycle, but he has been ghosting everybody.”
As Tillis has been repeatedly pointing out, Cunningham has not addressed the issue since his initial statement last week, even as the Army Reserve announced Wednesday it is opening an investigation into the affair.
“He owes North Carolinians a full explanation. The truth still matters in North Carolina, Cal,” Tillis tweeted on Wednesday, turning the Democrat’s mantra against him.
“Give me a break,” Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University, told Courthouse News in response to Tillis’ demand for his opponent to provide a full explanation.
Greene said the senator appears to “only call for a thorough explanation of alleged marital infidelity when the person involved is running against him for the Senate seat.”
The Cunningham campaign made the right move when the candidate apologized and said no more on the topic, the professor said.
According to Greene, it is doubtful that the scandal will have a significant impact on the outcome of the race even though Cunningham’s image has “taken a hit.” He is not fully sold on the idea that 12% of voters are actually undecided.
“I suspect most of them are already leaning one way or another,” he said.
“If Trump wins North Carolina, Tillis will be our senator. If Biden wins the state, Cunningham will be our senator,” Greene added. “If Cunningham ends up severely underperforming Biden in the state, I guess we may be able to point to this as a factor.”
The political strategist with whom Cunningham allegedly had an affair is married to Jeremy Todd, who was assigned to Fort Bragg, where the Army Reserve Command is located.
According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, extramarital affairs while on active duty are a violation of the rules. But whether the behavior took place while Cunningham was on active duty is unknown.
“The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham. As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time,” an Army Reserve Command spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.
The Republican incumbent, who had attended the U.S. Supreme Court nomination ceremony for Amy Coney Barrett in late September that is blamed for coronavirus infections in the White House, announced on Friday that he tested positive.
Over the weekend, Cunningham's campaign said the Democrat tested negative for the virus, but he continues to quarantine after having shared a debate stage with Tillis a day before the senator’s positive diagnosis.
It remains to be seen how these two developments will impact control of the Senate.
“With Tillis, this is seen as something that happened to him. No one wants Covid-19,” Cooper said, acknowledging that some voters may hold Tillis culpable for not wearing a mask during events.
Tillis has previously apologized for “falling short” after receiving scrutiny over not wearing a face covering during the Republican National Convention in August.
“Cal Cunningham, however, made the decision to have an affair, a bad decision,” Cooper said.
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