Democrat Cal Cunningham’s apparent sexual dalliances and cringe-inducing romantic texts have reduced the North Carolina Democrat to a national punchline in the final stretch of the country’s most expensive Senate race.
But the scandal appears to be almost helping Mr. Cunningham — or at least not hurting him.
Polling conducted after the potentially campaign-ending news came to light shows Mr. Cunningham retaining a lead or gaining ground on Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is seeking a second term.
“If they want to continue to fight back that way, then, you know, it makes us fight a little dirtier than we want to,” said Elaine Wood, a Democratic Party leader in Beaufort County in the eastern part of the state. “I’ll tell you, I’ve taken the high road for four years while I’ve been chair in this county, in a red county, and I’m a lot more assertive than I used to be.”
In what would be a campaign-ender in most years, news broke in recent weeks that Mr. Cunningham exchanged suggestive texts with a woman who isn’t his wife.
Mr. Cunningham, who is married with two children, apologized in a statement Oct. 2.
“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,” he said.
In the texts, he told Arlene Guzman Todd, who works in public relations in California, she was “historically sexy” and that it “would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now.”
Ms. Guzman Todd then told The Associated Press after some of the texts surfaced that she and Mr. Cunningham were “intimate” on at least one occasion in July in North Carolina.
Ms. Guzman Todd’s husband, Army veteran Jeremy Todd, called on Mr. Cunningham to end his campaign.
Mr. Cunningham has a 4-point lead over Mr. Tillis in the latest Real Clear Politics average of public polling.
That’s in line with the 48%-44% lead among registered voters the Democrat had in a Monmouth University poll released on Oct. 13 — up from a 1-point, 46%-45% lead in September.
Just 14% of respondents said the sexting revelation should disqualify Mr. Cunningham from office, while 51% said it should be an issue only for the candidate and his family. Another 32% said the behavior was questionable but did not disqualify him.
“At a time when swing voters have had their fill of hyperpartisanship, it’s possible that this story coming out now could actually hurt Tillis a bit,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Mr. Tillis agreed that it’s a personal matter but said the conduct and Mr. Cunningham’s evasive explanations are character issues that should be fair game in the campaign.
“I really feel sorry for his family with what they’re going through right now,” Mr. Tillis said on Fox News. “But when you premise your entire campaign on truth and honor and what you were was untruthful and dishonorable, the people of North Carolina need to understand that Cal Cunningham will say anything to get elected.”
The U.S. Army Reserve is investigating the matter. Mr. Cunningham joined the reserves after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and has since served three active duty tours, according to his campaign website.
The race could determine whether Democrats pick up enough seats to regain a majority in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage.
Outside groups have poured more than $150 million into the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, easily making it the most expensive Senate contest in the country.
At least $240 million has been spent on the race, according to Advertising Analytics.
Mr. Cunningham raised about $28 million in July, August and September and started the closing stretch with $4.2 million on hand.
Mr. Tillis raised $6.6 million in the third quarter and had $6.6 million on hand at the start of the month.
“Cal Cunningham may as well have lit all the money he spent in the third quarter on fire because his extramarital affair with the wife of a disabled combat veteran and the U.S. Army investigation he is now facing has his numbers in free fall,” said Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat.
Democrats say the GOP is in no position to start delivering lectures about family values with President Trump atop the ticket.
Mr. Trump has been married three times and accused of affairs in the past, including allegations he had an affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
“I saw it and I thought, oh crap,” said an official with a national liberal advocacy group. “But then, what is Tillis going to say here? Republicans have no leg to stand on.”
Glen Bolger, Mr. Tillis’s pollster, disputed the idea that Mr. Cunningham is emerging from the scandal unscathed.
The Democrat’s unfavorable ratings have moved 16 points more negative since the story broke and Mr. Tillis had a 3-point, 47%-44% lead among people who have seen, heard or read a lot about the story, he said.
“Tillis was in a tough spot at the end of September, but the Cunningham scandal where he cheated on his wife and family during the campaign and is now under investigation by the military, has made this a close race again,” Mr. Bolger said.
Republican strategist Dee Stewart is helping run a digital ad campaign through the group Results for NC that compares Mr. Cunningham to former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee whose extramarital affair ended his political career in 2008.
“We’re going to make sure that when he says integrity is sort of the centerpiece of this campaign that we provide voters with information so that they can determine whether he’s lived up to his own objective,” Mr. Stewart said. “We believe that voters are smarter than Cal Cunningham gives them credit for.”
Ms. Wood said Mr. Cunningham made a mistake and atoned for it -— in contrast to the twice-divorced Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump cheated on his first wife, Ivana Trump, with his eventual second wife, Marla Maples, in an affair splashed across the New York tabloids in the 1990s.
He has been accused of paying hush money to Stormy Daniels to cover up an affair while married to first lady Melania Trump. Mr. Trump denied the affair.
“It’s a disappointment, yes, but we still like the guy and we think he’s going to do a lot more for North Carolina and the U.S. government than Mr. Tillis is,” Ms. Wood said. “I think it only enhances the anger on the other side that the Republicans have let our president get away with so many worse things that I don’t find it even comprehensible to even compare this issue.”
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