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Cunningham’s texts, Tillis’ diagnosis: How they affect the Senate race

A sex scandal and a positive coronavirus test have shaken the high-stakes U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
A sex scandal and a positive coronavirus test have shaken the high-stakes U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.

For a race that could determine which party gains congressional control, the North Carolina U.S. Senate race looked stable for months. Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham held a comfortable lead over the incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC). But on Oct. 2, a sex scandal and a positive coronavirus test changed the race. 

Tillis announced he had tested positive with “no symptoms” for the coronavirus just hours after President Trump confirmed his COVID-19 infection Oct. 2. The diagnosis came days after the North Carolina senator attended President Trump’s Supreme Court nomination event for Amy Coney Barrett in the White House Rose Garden, which is now linked to several infections. 

In just three hours, however, attention turned to the Democratic candidate. Cunningham's campaign confirmed that he had sent private, sexually suggestive text messages to Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist. In a statement released the night of Oct. 2, Cunningham, who is married, wrote, "I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends and am deeply sorry." He added that he would not be dropping out of the race.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that there was an intimate encounter between Cunningham and Guzman Todd as recently as July in Cunningham's home, according to Guzman Todd and text messages between her and a friend. (Cunningham’s campaign declined to comment to the AP regarding the new allegations and pointed to his earlier statement.) The Army Reserve is investigating the scandal to determine whether Cunningham—a lieutenant colonel—violated military rules concerning adultery.

Asher Hildebrand, associate professor of the practice in the Sanford School of Public Policy, said that he was disappointed to learn the news about Cunningham. Still, he doubted that such an event would turn a race upside down. 

"The event is a test of just how much scandals like these matter,” Hildebrand said. “This election year is extremely polarized. Four hundred thousand North Carolinians have cast their ballots. Democratic voters are willing to defeat President Trump and gain the Senate majority. I think it was a disappointment, but the race remained to be seen for voters on the fence. So far, a recent poll indicated a tie between the two candidates." 

Hildebrand acknowledged that Tillis’s diagnosis may score the Republican incumbent some sympathy, but other factors may undermine that sympathy.

“It is also noteworthy to point out the Senate's abysmal response to act for months on any stimulus. North Carolina voters will hold him for liability,” Hildebrand said as well. 

The Senate failed to advance Republicans’ roughly $650 billion relief bill Sept. 10, which would have authorized new money for small businesses, coronavirus testing in schools and $300 in unemployment benefits. The bill excluded a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks, which Democrats and the White House supported, and new money for cities and states, which Democrats prioritized.

The Senate’s inaction in passing a new coronavirus stimulus bill comes at a critical time. Thirteen GOP-held seats—including Tillis’s in North Carolina—are contested in November. Democrats need just four net seats to recapture the Senate majority—or three if Joe Biden wins the presidential election.

A Washington Post analysis noted, however, that GOP strategists and Capitol Hill staffers were not as concerned that the Senate’s inaction on passing a new bill would damage the party’s Senate election prospects.

Hildebrand added that Tillis’s diagnosis doesn’t appear to impact the Supreme Court confirmation, as Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are determined to “move forward.” 

The Guardian previously reported that without votes from Tillis and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who are both quarantining for 10 days for testing positive for COVID-19, committee approval of Barrett could be “in jeopardy.”

Hildebrand said that despite these developments in the race, Cunningham still maintains an advantage over Tillis “because of his coronavirus response.”

"It does not appear that the scandals have moved the race all that much, even in an election year. That said a lot about 2020,” he said.

For more election coverage from across North Carolina, visit One Vote North Carolina, a collaborative of The Chronicle and six other student newspapers that aims to help college students across the state navigate the November election.

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