Can Sen. Thom Tillis come from behind and beat Cal Cunningham in crucial NC Senate race?

Paul Woolverton, USA TODAY NETWORK

Public opinion polls this month at first indicated Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham was maintaining a lead among likely voters despite a storm of news stories and campaign ads about his summertime adulterous tryst and romantic texting with a woman from California.

Now, most recent polls say the race between Cunningham and incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis has narrowed to a statistical tie. The narrowing comes as Tillis has pushed Cunningham to talk about allegations of another paramour, this time a woman from North Carolina. The allegation was made by National File, a conservative news site that first reported Cunningham’s text messages with the California woman.

Tillis temporarily paused his campaigning in early October, just as Cunningham’s bad news first broke, when he tested positive for COVID-19.

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Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, left, and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham during a televised debate on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, left, and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham during a televised debate on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020.

With the voting period closing in on Election Day, does the change in the polling numbers show Cunningham’s support has eroded because voters dislike that he was unfaithful to his wife?

Or do the newer polls instead show that Cunningham’s numbers are steady, while supporters of Republican President Donald Trump (who have been unhappy because Tillis occasionally has disagreed with the president) are finally deciding to vote to re-elect the Republican senator?

It depends on whom you ask.

Peter Francia, director of the Center for Survey Research at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
Peter Francia, director of the Center for Survey Research at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

“It’s been a lot of bad news cycles for Cal Cunningham, and that will move the numbers a little bit,” said Peter Francia, director of the Center for Survey Research at East Carolina University. The school's latest poll, published Tuesday, had Cunningham leading Tillis 48% to 47%. The margin of error is 3 points, putting them in a statistical tie.

“The two bombshells -- Tillis’ COVID diagnosis and Cunningham’s marital infidelity --have not affected the basic trajectory of the race,” said David McLennan, director of the Meredith Poll produced by Meredith College in Raleigh. “Thom Tillis remains an endangered incumbent. The two ‘October surprises’ may have had the effect of causing a number of voters to say they have not made up their mind.”

Political scientist David McLennan of Meredith University.
Political scientist David McLennan of Meredith University.

Meredith’s latest survey, published Friday, has Cunningham leading Tillis 43.3%-38.2%, with 14.1% undecided.

The Cunningham campaign said in a statement this past week that the trend in the polls shows “Cunningham’s support has remained stable or increased, and that any tightening in the margin is due to natural Republican base consolidation happening later in the cycle than usual.”

A look at the polls published this month suggests both the pollsters and the Cunningham campaign have factors for their arguments.

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On Oct. 12, the Real Clear Politics survey compilation website said Cunningham’s polling average was 5.6 points ahead of Tillis’. Then both he and Tillis declined, although Cunningham remained 4.3 points ahead on Oct. 17.

Both candidates have since rebounded, but Tillis more-so, leaving Cunningham 1.7 points ahead as of Friday afternoon. (The Real Clear Politics does not include the Meredith Poll in its compilation.)

Cunningham issued an apology following the initial reports of his relationship with the California woman and told reporters he won’t discuss the topic further.

Tillis has pounded on Cunningham for the infidelity in campaign ads, public appearances and statements.

“Cal Cunningham’s refusal to deny a second extramarital affair serves as confirmation that he engaged in egregious misconduct in addition to what has already landed him under investigation by the Army Reserve,” Tillis said in a news release. Cunningham is an officer in the Army Reserve, and the service said this month it is him. Under military law, personnel are not allowed to engage in adultery.

“If Cal Cunningham cheats and lies while he asks for your vote, he will continue to cheat and lie as your U.S. Senator,” Tillis said. He said on Fox News that Cunningham should drop out of the race and attend to his relationship with his wife and children.

In news interviews and comments on social media, Cunningham supporters have said they will vote for him even if the allegations are true. Their priority: Wresting majority control of the U.S. Senate away from the Republican Party, which holds 53 of the 100 seats. The election in North Carolina is expected to be key in the Democrats’ efforts.

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A Cunningham spokeswoman said Tillis is trying to distract voters from substantive issues that are more important to the voters, like access to health care and the federal government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.

“Senator Tillis and his allies can’t defend his record of trying to strip protections from those with pre-existing conditions or botching the response to COVID-19, so instead, they are spending the final weeks of this race resorting to desperate, personal attacks,” Communications Director Rachel Petri said.

Meanwhile, Tillis was asked this past week by TV station WCNC in Charlotte if he is applying a double standard by harping on Cunningham’s behavior yet supporting Republican President Donald Trump, who has similar activities in his past. Tillis said the difference between Cunningham’s activity and Trump’s is that Cunningham was with the wife of an Army veteran who was injured in the service.

“No, I think the standard should be the same,” Tillis told the TV station. “That's why I said voters are entitled to make whatever choices they want to for president. But let's not lower the standard and say that you can have an adulterous affair with the wife of a wounded warrior.”

The California woman and her husband have both told the media they were in a marital separation when she was with Cunningham.

In the 2014 election, when Tillis unseated Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, he was running behind in surveys toward the end of the election. But he predicted he would sway the remaining undecided voters in the final days and win. His prediction proved accurate.

Can Tillis do that again?

In 2014, the national political winds favored Republicans, said Francia of ECU.

“As of today, those national winds look like they are blowing in the direction of the Democrats, and so that — that’s going to work against Tillis in 2020,” Francia said.

Here are the latest poll results, as reported by the pollsters and Real Clear Politics, as of Friday afternoon:

  • Tied 45-45, Rasmussen Reports, conducted Tuesday and Wednesday.

  • Tied 47-47, conducted Oct. 14 to Oct. 20 (Wednesday) by Ipsos for the Reuters news service.

  • 43.3%-38.2%, Cunningham up more than 5 points, conducted Oct. 16 to Oct. 19 by Meredith College.

  • 51-45, a 6-point lead for Cunningham, conducted Oct. 16 to Oct. 19, by Change Research for the CNBC news channel.

  • 48-47, Cunningham ahead 1 point, conducted Oct. 15 to Oct. 18 by ECU.

  • 49-47, Cunningham ahead 2 points, conducted Oct. 15 to Oct. 18 by ABC News and The Washington Post.

  • 45-44, Cunningham ahead 1 point, conducted Oct 13 to Oct. 14 by Emerson College.

Senior reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at pwoolverton@gannett.com and 910-261-4710.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Senate power balance: Thom Tillis gains on Cal Cunningham in North Carolina