COVID-19, text messages roil North Carolina Senate race

The Senate race in North Carolina has entered a volatile new phase, as both Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Democrat Cal Cunningham confront crises that threaten to upend a contest that could determine control of the Senate in November.

Tillis announced Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, joining a growing list of Republican officials and operatives who contracted the virus in recent days, including President Trump.

Hours later, Cunningham admitted to exchanging romantic text messages with a woman who is not his wife.

The dual revelations have thrown both campaigns into uncertainty, upending the candidates’ messaging and strategy less than a month before Election Day and at a time when most public polls show Cunningham with a single-digit lead over Tillis.

North Carolina is one of a handful of states that Democrats see as a critical part of their path to the Senate majority. The party needs to pick up three or four seats — depending on who wins the White House — to take control of the chamber.

With his positive COVID-19 test, Tillis was forced to temporarily shutter his Charlotte campaign headquarters and will remain off the trail for at least another week. Likewise, campaign staffers who were exposed to the senator will also quarantine.

Cunningham, who debated Tillis in person Thursday, tested negative for the coronavirus over the weekend.

The coronavirus diagnosis also raises questions about Tillis’s participation in the Senate confirmation hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, whom Tillis has vowed to swiftly confirm.

Now that he’s infected with a virus that has emerged as one of Republicans’ greatest political weaknesses, it may make it even more difficult, if not impossible, for Tillis to shift the focus of the Senate race away from the coronavirus pandemic.

But Cunningham is also grappling with a crisis of his own. He acknowledged to The Raleigh News & Observer on Friday that he had sent intimate text messages with a California-based consultant after the right-wing website published screenshots of the exchanges.

“Would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now,” Cunningham wrote in one of the text messages. In other messages, the two fantasized about spending the night together.

It’s unclear exactly when the messages were sent, though Cunningham says in one text that he’s “nervous about the next 100 days,” suggesting that the message was sent this summer as he was campaigning.

Cunningham, a former state senator and Iraq War veteran, apologized for his behavior in a statement to the News & Observer, but insisted that he would not drop out of the Senate race, saying that he “will continue to work to earn the opportunity to fight for the people of our state.”

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” Cunningham said. “The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family’s privacy be respected in this personal matter.”

Cunningham was slated to appear at a town hall Monday, but the event was abruptly canceled after he backed out of the appearance. A spokesperson for Cunningham’s campaign told The Hill that he is “unable to attend today but looks forward to continuing to work to earn the opportunity to fight for North Carolinians.”

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said he expects more revelations about Cunningham’s behavior to come to light, and called on the Democratic candidate to “be fully transparent with voters.”

“These are very troubling allegations and Cal needs to be fully transparent with the voters of North Carolina,” Hunt said in a statement. “We know there is more to this story, Cal knows there is more to this story, and he needs to come clean with voters so they can make the appropriate judgement on whether he’s fit for office.”

One North Carolina Democratic consultant said that Cunningham “still has a lot of questions to answer” about his behavior. But the consultant also said that the text messages have so far been overshadowed by other news, most notably Trump’s hospitalization due to the coronavirus.

“I’d say Cunningham is pretty lucky that this all hit in the middle of so much news,” the consultant said. “It’s just not getting the attention that it normally would get.”

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) signaled in a statement that it is standing by Cunningham amid the controversy.

“North Carolinians are supporting Cal because he will protect health care coverage for pre-existing conditions, fight to bring down the costs of prescription drugs, and help our country recover from this crisis,” Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the DSCC, said.

“We are confident that he will bring the same courage and determination to the Senate as he has while serving our country in uniform,” she added.

It will be difficult to assess what impact the recent developments will have on the actual outcome of the race. North Carolinians are already voting. So far, more than 1 million voters in the state have requested absentee ballots, and hundreds of thousands have already returned them to election officials. Early in-person voting in the state is set to begin next week.

For now, Cunningham and Tillis’s support also appears relatively stable. A survey from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling released Monday showed Cunningham leading Tillis 48 percent to 42 percent. A similar poll from Public Policy Polling fielded in July showed Cunningham at 48 percent and Tillis at 44 percent.

Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist in North Carolina, said he doesn’t expect Tillis’s COVID-19 diagnosis to weigh much on the race. Tillis, he said, has been relatively careful in his approach to the coronavirus pandemic, urging people to wear face masks and refraining for the most part from big campaign rallies.

On the other hand, Wrenn said Cunningham may be in for a difficult few weeks leading up to Election Day.

“It’s not a hurricane yet,” Wrenn said of Cunningham’s scandal. “But Cunningham’s problem is that the media is going to keep pressing him on it. If he goes somewhere and does an event, he’s going to be asked about it.”

Another variable looming over the Senate race is the presidential race between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. North Carolina is a crucial battleground state, and recent polls show the two candidates in a dead heat. Wrenn said that which way the state swings at the top of the ticket could help determine the outcome in the Senate contest.

“The presidential race is the other wild card,” he said. “If Biden ends up winning the state, it helps the Democrats. If Trump wins it’s going to help the Republicans. You don’t know how that’s going to come out at this point.”

Tags Cal Cunningham Coronavirus Donald Trump Joe Biden North Carolina Thom Tillis
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