(Headline USA) North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham is doing his best to duck uncomfortable questions about a game-changing sex scandal in the final days of his closely contested race with GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.
Whether his strategy alters the outcome of what’s now the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history will depend on whether swing voters are set on removing Tillis—and potentially ending GOP control of the chamber—even if it means embracing a deeply flawed opponent.
“Clearly Cunningham made a self-inflicted wound, but the question is what are voters really going to be focused on down the stretch?” asked Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic consultant not involved in the race.
After evidence made denial impossible, Cunningham reluctantly acknowledged three weeks ago that he exchanged sexually suggestive texts with a woman who is not his wife.
A few days later, The Associated Press reported additional texts and interviews confirming they had an intimate encounter as recent as July—while Cunningham was deep in the hard-fought campaign.
Since then, Cunningham has largely stuck to tightly controlled virtual calls with interest groups that back him and small, unannounced in-person appearances so reporters can’t ask questions.
During the one online news conference he held, the Raleigh attorney and U.S. Army Reserve officer refused to directly answer whether he had had other affairs.
“I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I’ve apologized for it,” Cunningham told reporters on Oct. 9. “I’ve said what I’m going to say about it.”
Tillis and Republican allies are jumping on Cunningham’s reticence, running ads that question his trustworthiness.
Tillis’ campaign also says he’s given more than two dozen interviews since Cunningham’s lone news conference.
Cunningham “has not been truthful and he has not been honorable,” Tillis said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And then that raises a question about whether or not you can believe anything he said up to this point in terms of what he will and will not do if he gets elected to the Senate.”
Cunningham has tried to frame the race on anything but his moral shortcomings. That includes attack ads claiming that Tillis, who is seeking his second term, has committed his own ethical transgressions while in Congress.
He’s blamed Tillis for failing to expand COVID-19 relief and voting often to do away with President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Radical leftist groups from the Human Rights Campaign to the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters to labor unions are by Cunningham’s side circling the wagons to protect their once promising contender in the historically red state.
“You’ve got to send Cal Cunningham to the United States Senate if health care is your issue in the state of North Carolina,” Brad Woodhouse, president of Protect Our Care, an organization that advocates preserving the 2010 health care law, said at a virtual event this week featuring Cunningham.
No questions were taken from the news media.
Cunningham’s campaign didn’t make him available for an AP interview. Instead, spokesperson Rachel Petri released a statement saying, “Sen. Tillis and his allies are relying on desperate, personal attacks to make their final appeal to North Carolinians because they cannot defend Sen. Tillis’ record.”
Cunningham himself makes a similar pitch in a TV ad that began running Friday.
National Democrats, backed by billionaire megadonors and dark-money special interests, are committed to protecting their investment in the seat—one of several they’re spending heavily on to wrest from Republicans this year.
They need to flip at least four to take back the Senate. North Carolina’s is already the most expensive Senate race ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with $246 million spent so far by the two candidates and outside groups.
Cunningham’s campaign raised $28.3 million in the third quarter, quadrupling what Tillis’ raised, and allowing the Democrat to hammer away with TV ads.
Despite being tarnished by the scandal, Cunningham outraised Tillis again in the first two weeks of October, according to campaign reports.
But polls show the race narrowing, and the editorial boards of the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers withheld an endorsement of Cunningham that they said they had been prepared to give him before the affair.
“His lack of judgment … should deeply trouble North Carolinians,” their editorial read. The papers did not endorse either candidate.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper inadvertently was overheard referring to Cunningham’s troubles while he spoke briefly with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during a campaign stop in North Carolina last weekend.
“We’re going to all get across the line,” Cooper said to Biden at the Raleigh–Durham International Airport in a conversation recorded by WRAL-TV. “I think Cal’s going to get across the line, too. I know that’s frustrating. We’ll get it across.”
Republicans have emphasized how the U.S. Army Reserve is now investigating Cunningham. The military hasn’t said for what, but adultery can be punishable under the military code.
Campaign operatives have said for months the outcome would depend on independent voters, who now make up one-third of the state’s electorate.
Carol Hall, 56, an interior designer from Charlotte, said she switched her Republican registration last year because she didn’t feel the party cared about moderates any more.
Cunningham “screwed up, there’s no doubt about it,” Hall said.
But she said she’s still prepared to vote for him unless more sexual revelations surface.
“He’s not the first politician to have an affair,” she added, pointing to the multiple allegations against Trump. While no evidence has been presented to substantiate any allegations of a non-consensual relationship, Biden has a credible accusation of sexual assault lodged by former Senate staffer Tara Reade.
But even virulent #MeToo activists have gone out of their way to withhold criticism, seeing the political risks of denouncing Biden as worse for their agenda than standing firm on principle.
“It’s troubling for sure, but I don’t think that those actions will change what he can do for North Carolina,” Hall insisted.
Cunningham’s activities are a game-changer, however, for unaffiliated voter Brian Harbach, 39, of Greensboro.
Harbach, a forecast analyst in the apparel industry who supported Bernie Sanders for president, said he’s now voting for Tillis instead of Cunningham.
“We just can’t be sending low-character people to the Senate,” Harbach said.