RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The Democratic challenger in North Carolina's closely contested U.S. Senate campaign has acknowledged exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a woman who's not his wife, but he said he will not drop out of the race.
Cal Cunningham apologized late Friday for the text message exchanges in which he tells the woman he wants to kiss her and she says she wants to spend the night with him. The messages were first reported by the website 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," Cunningham said in a statement.
But Cunningham, who is married with two teenage children, added that he’s not dropping out of the Senate race: “I will continue to work to earn the opportunity to fight for the people our state.”
Cunningham's admission regarding the text messages, along with his opponent U.S. Senate Thom Tillis announcing Friday night he has tested positive for COVID-19, could reshape the nation's most expensive Senate campaign, which is considered key to determining the power balance in the Senate. Democrats need to gain four seats in November to ensure control of the chamber.
“It's chaos — it's really what I see it is," David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said Saturday. More than 319,000 completed mail-in absentee ballots already have been accepted by county election boards and will be counted. Early in-person voting begins Oct. 15.
Screengrabs of the messages show Cunningham told public relations strategist Arlene Guzman Todd, “Would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now,” to which she replies, “You're so sweet. I would enjoy that.”
Another shows Guzman Todd tell Cunningham, “the only thing I want on my to do list is you,” to which Cunningham replies, “Sounds so hot and so fun!”
A spokeswoman for Cunningham's campaign, Rachel Petri, confirmed on Saturday the authenticity of the text messages.
It's unclear when the messages were sent, but at one point Cunningham says he's “Nervous about the next 100 days,” which could be a reference to the Senate election. One hundred days before the election would be July 26.
An email trying to reach Guzman Todd at the California-based communications firm that lists her as an employee, as well as voice messages left with what public records indicate are her phone numbers, weren't immediately returned Saturday. Public records show she lived in Raleigh briefly until 2015. Guzman Todd is married to someone who has served in the U.S. Army, according to the NationalFile.com report.
Cunningham, 47, is an attorney and Iraq War veteran who still serves as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He served one term in the state Senate in the early 2000s and lost a Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate in 2010.
A few hours before Cunningham acknowledged the texts, Tillis announced that he tested positive for COVID-19 but said he has no symptoms. Cunningham tweeted that he wished Tillis a “quick recovery" and said he would get tested himself after the two men shared a debate stage Thursday night. It was the third and final scheduled debate in the race.
Tillis, 60, is the latest person to be diagnosed with the virus after attending the Supreme Court nomination ceremony in the White House Rose Garden for Amy Coney Barrett on Sept. 26. The first-term senator didn't say in his statement where he believes he caught the virus but did say he had tested negative for the virus on the same day as the White House event. Tillis was wearing a mask at the ceremony and has been among the most consistent state Republicans to preach the use of face coverings to stem the virus's spread. In late August, Tillis apologized for listening maskless to President Donald Trump giving his Republican nomination acceptance speech outdoors at the White House, saying he “fell short of my own standard."
Tillis' campaign announced separately that it's suspending in-person campaign events and temporarily closing his Charlotte campaign office. Campaign staff who have come into contact with Tillis will quarantine and receive virus tests, the campaign said in a news release.
Tillis' campaign didn't immediately respond to an email Saturday seeking comment on Cunningham. A national GOP group working for Tillis' re-election said Cunningham must disclose more so voters can decide his fitness for office. “These are very troubling allegations and Cal needs to be fully transparent with the voters of North Carolina,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Jesse Hunt said Saturday.
The North Carolina Senate race is second only to the presidential campaign in terms of overall outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than $97 million already has been spent by independent expenditure groups in the general election for or against Cunningham and Tillis, data from the center says — a reflection of the high stakes.
Cunningham, who outraised Tillis during the first half of the year, announced this week that his campaign would report to federal election officials collecting $28.3 million in the third quarter — a record haul for any North Carolina candidate. Tillis' campaign hasn't announced his third quarter fundraising totals.