A sexting scandal and a Covid-19 diagnosis haven't changed much in this Senate race

Lauren Egan
·7 min read

CONCORD, N.C. — Sen. Thom Tillis has had a busy week.

Tillis, a first-term Republican senator, voted to confirm a new Supreme Court justice, campaigned with Vice President Mike Pence, gave several rounds of media interviews and announced a packed schedule of events in the final days of his re-election bid.

Tillis' Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, rocked by weeks of controversy, has been a bit harder to find.

His last scheduled interview was several weeks ago, and journalists requesting sit-downs say their calls go unreturned. While he's still speaking to voters, many events are entirely virtual, and local reporters complain that his campaign is no longer sending out schedules to the media.

And yet his campaign, pivotal in determining who controls the Senate, is still considered one of the Democrats' best chances to flip a Senate seat this year.

Tillis announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus on Oct. 2, after having attended a White House event in honor of Amy Coney Barrett. The same day, Cunningham, a married father of two and an officer in the Army Reserve who has centered his campaign on his character, was caught in a sexting scandal amid allegations of an extramarital relationship.

Since then, the two candidates in what's on track to be the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history have taken vastly different approaches to their campaigns. Cunningham has largely avoided public events and the media, keeping his focus on the virus and health care.

Tillis, on the other hand, has made a point of being out in public. He has appeared with President Donald Trump and other high-profile Republicans, using whatever opportunity he can to highlight what he argues is a lack of transparency from Cunningham.

"More importantly than anything, he's broken our trust," Tillis said Tuesday while campaigning with Pence in Greensboro. "He's run on a campaign of trust and honor. Now we know he's not been truthful to his family and to his voters and he's not been honorable to the very uniform that he wears."

While each party hoped that its opponent's missteps would lead to his undoing, the race has remained surprisingly stable, with Cunningham consistently polling a few points ahead of Tillis, usually within the margin of error.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted Oct. 12 to 17 found Cunningham leading, with 49 percent of likely voters, compared to Tillis' 47 percent. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 points.

Many voters in North Carolina expressed negative attitudes about both candidates, but they said personal feelings wouldn't influence their votes. Rather, the national electoral environment and the presidential race are driving their choices.

"I've already voted for Trump," said James Hatley, 76, of Concord, a Charlotte exurb where Democrats are hoping to cut into Trump's nearly 20-point margin from 2016.

"I'm not much of a fan of Tillis. Perhaps they were all being too carefree about the virus. But I voted for him, too, because I'm not a liberal," Hatley said.

His wife, Doris Hatley, 73, who also voted early for Trump, said she was frustrated with Tillis for having publicly criticized the president earlier on in his term, such as when he wrote an op-ed article opposing Trump's plan to fund his signature border wall.

Hatley said that she had initially been open to finding another Republican to fill Tillis' seat but that she was left with few options after his only primary challenger dropped out at the end of last year.

"Tillis is just OK. But I was on my iPad the other night, I'm addicted to that thing, and I was reading something about '11 reasons why Christians should vote Trump,'" Doris Hatley said. "And so that sums it up. I'm Christian, and I'm conservative, and I voted Republican on all of the ballots."

Similarly, many Democrats say that despite their own feelings about marital infidelity, Cunningham's indiscretions wouldn't affect their votes for him.

"Tillis has to go. Trump has to go," said Sam Henry, 51, laughing off the suggestion that the revelations about Cunningham might change her mind.

Political watchers in North Carolina say the top of the ticket will probably determine which Senate candidate comes out ahead.

"I'm betting if Biden wins, Cunningham wins. If Trump wins, Tillis wins," said Pope McCorkle, a longtime North Carolina Democratic consultant who runs Duke University's Polis Center for Politics, adding that Trump had "lowered the bar" for the impact of a political sex scandal.

Carter Wrenn, a Republican political consultant in the state who advised Tillis' primary challenger. Garland Tucker, said he thought voters from both parties would be more than willing to overlook any issues they may have about the candidates given that the balance of the Senate could easily hinge on North Carolina.

"There's a group of Republicans out there that aren't enthusiastic about Tillis. But at the end of the day, if their other choice is a Democratic Senate, it's not that difficult," he said. "But I'm inclined to think that this race is a coin toss."

Joe Biden polls about 2.4 points ahead of Trump in North Carolina, according to averages of the state, mostly mirroring the Senate race polls.

Each party has privately expressed some optimism about dragging its Senate candidate over the finish line.

"I think Tillis is getting back in this one, because his opponent ended up having more affairs than you're allowed to have at one time," Trump told donors at a private fundraiser last week in Nashville, Tennessee, ahead of the final presidential debate, The Washington Post reported.

During a campaign stop in the Raleigh area with Biden last week, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper was caught on a hot mic by a local TV station acknowledging that Cunningham's infidelity had caused him some trouble. Still, he said he remained hopeful.

"We're going to all get across the line," Cooper told Biden. "I think Cal's going to get across the line, too. I know that's frustrating. We'll get it across."

In the final days of the race, neither campaign is backing down from its efforts to capitalize on the other's perceived weakness.

Tillis has run ads casting doubt on Cunningham's trustworthiness, trying to cut against the image of an Army officer who weeded out corrupt military contractors in Iraq.

"The Code of Military Justice. All soldiers live by it. Just like the oath we all take," veterans narrating a video ad for Tillis say. "Cal Cunningham violated his oath when he had an affair with another soldier's wife."

On Friday, Tillis tweeted a video from a local TV station showing a reporter sitting next to an empty chair and stating: "We continue to reach out to the Cunningham campaign and offer an open invitation for Cal Cunningham to sit down with us for a one-on-one interview, an invitation so far he continues to decline."

Cunningham released an ad over the weekend accusing Tillis of trying to distract from his own record.

"Thom Tillis is desperately attacking my personal life because he doesn't want to talk about his own record. Thousands of families without health care, unaffordable prescriptions and a relentless effort to take away coverage from people with pre-existing conditions," Cunningham says in the ad. "It may be my name on the ballot, but it's your health care."

Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for the Tillis campaign, said Cunningham's ad was evidence that the scandal was having an impact, regardless of what the polls showed.

"It won't work. North Carolinians know a fraud when they see one and no amount of last-minute, panicked TV ads can change the fact that Cunningham's lies, hypocrisy and breach of the Military Code Of Justice will lead to his demise on November 3rd," Romeo said in a statement.

Rachel Petri, a spokesperson for the Cunningham campaign, said Tillis was relying on "desperate, personal attacks" because he could not defend "botching the Covid-19 response."

Democrats point to the virtual events that Cunningham has held to push back against the suggestion that he is hiding from the media.

But Cunningham hasn't willingly answered media questions in weeks.

When he stopped by a TV station at an unannounced in-person appearance at a barbershop last week, Cunningham didn't engage on questions about his scandal.

"I've said what I'm going to say about personal matters," Cunningham responded. "I think the voters of North Carolina want me talking with them about the things that are leading them to vote, which are about how we get the economy moving, how we deal with the health care challenges."