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Cunningham widens lead over Tillis after news of affair: poll

Cal Cunningham has widened his lead over Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisTeam Trump offering 'fire hose' of conspiracy Kool-Aid for supporters Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection North Carolina's Mark Walker expected to announce Senate bid MORE (R) in North Carolina's marquee Senate race after revelations over an extramarital affair threatened to derail the Democrat's candidacy.

Cunningham led Tillis, who is running for a second term, by a 48 to 44 percent margin among registered voters in a new Monmouth University poll released Tuesday. The former state senator’s lead grows to 5 points among likely voters in a high-turnout scenario, 49 to 44 percent, while his lead shrinks to 1 point, 48 to 47 percent, in a low-turnout scenario. 

Despite the news of Cunningham’s affair, the Democrat’s lead grew from the same poll from September, which was released before the scandal hit and showed Cunningham with a slimmer 1-point lead over Tillis among registered voters.

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The survey suggests the Senate race will closely match the results of the presidential race, with Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE leading President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE by anywhere from 1 to 4 points, depending on the turnout model.

The poll is a boon for Cunningham, who is married. Texts revealed he exchanged messages of a sexual nature with a married woman, Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist from California. Todd later confirmed the two had had an affair.

Cunningham also serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, which is investigating the relationship.

Tillis and outside Republican groups have seized on the affair, noting that Cunningham had placed character and duty at the heart of his campaign pitch, and the news of the relationship has been plastered on the front pages of local newspapers and across local broadcasts. But according to the new poll, the affair is not doing significant damage to Cunningham’s campaign.

Fourteen percent of voters said they feel the sexual texts disqualify Cunningham from holding office, while 32 percent said the behavior calls his character into question but is not a disqualifier. A slim majority of voters, 51 percent, said this should be an issue only for him and his family. A total of 80 percent of voters have heard about the affair.

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“North Carolinians may frown on Cunningham’s behavior but few think it has any bearing on his fitness for office. In fact, at a time when swing voters have had their fill of hyperpartisanship, it’s possible that this story coming out now could actually hurt Tillis a bit,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Cunningham and Tillis both have net-negative approval ratings, though Cunningham previously had an above-water approval rating in August, while Tillis’s has remained relatively consistent.

The Monmouth survey is just the latest to show Cunningham with a lead. A SurveyUSA poll conducted for WRAL-TV put him 10 points ahead, and a poll from Morning Consult showed him with a 47-41 advantage.

The North Carolina Senate race is a critical contest for Democrats, who are looking to flip the Senate chamber but would face headwinds if they fail to unseat Tillis. Democrats are also going on offense in Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine and elsewhere.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, rates the Tarheel State’s race as a “toss-up.”

The Monmouth University poll surveyed 500 registered voters from Oct. 8 to Oct. 11 and has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.