Since the start of October, a lot has changed in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Thom Tillis and Democrat challenger Cal Cunningham. Two discoveries came to light Oct. 2: Tillis announced he tested positive for COVID-19, and Cunningham admitted to having an extramarital affair. So, let’s look at the timeline of Cunningham scandal, examine the affair in the context of the race and see how it plays on the national level.
The Cunningham Scandal Made Headlines in Early October
Cunningham and public relations consultant Arlene Guzman Todd engaged in a months-long exchange of messages and had two in-person encounters.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the first personal meeting between the two happened in March, and that the second came later, in July. Guzman Todd told the news organization that she and Cunningham were physically intimate during that July encounter at Cunningham’s home.
The affair became public with 32 days remaining until the Nov. 3 general election. National File published sexual messages between Cunningham and Guzman Todd on Oct. 2, and Cunningham issued a public apology that night.
Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, returned to the campaign trail Wednesday. Meanwhile, reports surfaced that day that he is under investigation from the Army Reserve about the affair. After all, the Military Uniform Code of Justice prohibits adultery.
On Friday, Cunningham evaded multiple questions from reporters about whether there were affairs with multiple women.
“I have taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life,” Cunningham said in a story published Friday afternoon by The Hill. “I apologized to it, I apologized for it. And I know that this campaign — our campaign is about things that are much bigger and more important than just me. It’s about the very issues and people we were just talking to right here.”
How Does This Scandal Affect the Senate Race?
Dr. David Holian, an associate professor in political science at UNC Greensboro, sees the Cunningham scandal playing out in a few different ways.
The first way: the Tillis campaign throws light on Cunningham’s hypocrisy to undermine the wholesome image Cunningham presented to voters. The second way: a media “feeding frenzy” develops and takes over the closing weeks of the campaign. The third way: Cunningham’s strategy of ignoring questions works because of the overall news environment surrounding November’s general election.
“Part of the strategy for Cunningham is to focus on anything but [the affair],” Holian said.
So, what works in Cunningham’s favor?
According to Holian, there are less undecided voters this year. In addition, voters have already started sending in their ballots. By this point, voters have a solid idea about which candidate they will vote for and which candidate they won’t vote for — if they haven’t sent in their ballot yet. “People are just as motivated against the other guy as they are motivated to vote for their team,” Holian said.
Another thing working in Cunningham’s favor is it being 2020. Holian said he doesn’t believe a scandal like this will cause a huge uproar like it did with Democrat Gary Hart in the 1988 presidential election or in the 1990s with President Bill Clinton. “I don’t know that this carries the weight that it used to,” he said.
Beyond North Carolina and 2020
On the national scale, Democrats and Republicans are battling to control the Senate. And guess where North Carolina finds itself in all of this: right smack dab in the middle.
“If you look at tipping point states, North Carolina is pretty routinely on top of the list of being a tipping point,” Holian said.
For now, Republicans currently hold a 53-45 advantage in the Senate. Holian said the Democrats need to pick up a net of three seats to take over the majority. But, if that doesn’t happen, Holian sees a repeat of what happened during President Barack Obama’s administration.
In short, “it’s gridlock,” he said. “I can’t imagine that the Republicans won’t rerun the playbook from the Obama years, which is obstruct everything.”