North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham is ducking questions about his extramarital affairs 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 — even if it means electing a replacement facing a sex scandal.
Cunningham admitted 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 confirming they had an intimate encounter as recently as July — while Cunningham was in the middle of a hard-fought campaign.
Since then, Cunningham has largely stuck to tightly controlled virtual calls with friendly interest groups 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.”
Meanwhile, Tillis’ campaign 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.”
Groups such as the Human Rights Campaign and the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters are coming to Cunningham’s side.
“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, 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.
What a day! Loved talking with folks in Carrboro about the importance of this election, with early voting lines around the block. Then topped it off by visiting Matthew’s Chocolates in Hillsborough—a sweet way to end the day! pic.twitter.com/6Wj7JyBVxb
— Cal Cunningham (@CalforNC) October 20, 2020
Democrats are committed to their investment in the seat — one of several they’re spending heavily on 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. Cunningham out-raised Tillis again in the first two weeks of October, according to campaign reports.
But polls show a tight race, 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.
The U.S. Army Reserve is now investigating Cunningham. The military hasn’t said why, 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.
That includes Carol Hall, 56, an interior designer from Charlotte.
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.
“It’s troubling for sure, but I don’t think that those actions will change what he can do for North Carolina,” Hall said.
But Cunningham’s scandal is a game-changer for unaffiliated voter Brian Harbach, 39, of Greensboro, who was a Bernie Sanders supporter.
He said he’s now voting for Tillis instead of Cunningham.
“We just can’t be sending low-character people to the Senate,” Harbach said.
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