Democrats have a clear shot at taking back the Senate majority next month. But if they fall short, Cal Cunningham may shoulder the blame.
President Donald Trump is sagging nearly everywhere that matters and is placing more and more Senate races in the firing line for a Democratic takeover. But suddenly, Cunningham has clouded over what should be a fairly obvious Democratic path to victory that runs straight through North Carolina.
The Democratic nominee’s infidelity and reluctance to address it fully is now a cudgel for endangered Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. The Republican senator’s fortunes were dimming just a week ago, as Cunningham reported eye-popping fundraising numbers on top of a monthslong lead in public and private polling.
Democrats can win the majority without North Carolina, but the path is more complicated. And Democrats insist Tillis has yet to make up ground in the polls.
But the fundamentals of the race have changed: Cunningham is on defense and seen as ducking questions about an affair with a veteran’s estranged wife. Cunningham’s story is leading North Carolina’s newscasts and front pages. And Tillis is on the attack, going after Cunningham himself instead of relying on political surrogates.
“This undermines a voter’s confidence in Cal, particularly if you’re in the undecided” camp, Tillis said in an interview from North Carolina, where he is isolated after contracting the coronavirus. “There’s no question that North Carolina is the bellwether state for holding the majority in the Senate.”
If Tillis can mount a stunning comeback, Republicans hope he can save their majority — even if Joe Biden defeats Trump. And though the first-term Republican still sees a path for Trump to win and said nothing critical of the president, he also indicated he’s running as a check on a potential President Biden.
“The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate. And I do think ‘checks and balances’ does resonate with North Carolina voters,” he said.
North Carolina is one of a handful of top-tier states that will determine the majority. Republicans currently hold a 53-47 advantage, but Democrats are favored to win in Arizona and Colorado. Republicans have an edge in Alabama, and races in Iowa and Maine are highly competitive. Democrats have also pushed races in deeper red territory like Alaska, Montana, South Carolina and Kansas into play, broadening their path back to power.
But Josh Holmes, a close confidant to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said “without question the clearest pathway” for Democrats to win the Senate was through North Carolina. “And it looks like Cal Cunningham sexted it away.”
Steven Law, who runs Senate Leadership Fund, the powerful super PAC closely aligned with McConnell, conceded the race had “kind of frozen into place with a gap in polling between Tillis and Cunningham.” But now he sees a shake-up.
“It changes our potential for winning this race. I wouldn’t say it’s decisive, but it is a key ingredient. With the potential for winning North Carolina, I think it could build a bridge to holding the majority,” Law said.
A Democrat familiar with recent polling said that while voters are aware of the affair, and the race may tighten, “people are not shifting their support.” And Democrats scoff at the possibility voters will punish Cunningham after Trump has been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct, including the president’s own words in the “Access Hollywood” tape, which was released a month before the 2016 election.
“It’s a little bit hard for me to take seriously the Republican shock and horror about whatever this guy did,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “Pretty much whatever any Democratic candidate could do has been eclipsed by what Donald Trump does every day that Republicans cover for.”
But Tillis says this is different because Cunningham was making character, integrity and a military background such an integral part of his race. Last Friday, outlets reported that Cunningham sent sexually suggestive texts to Arlene Guzman Todd, a California PR executive and the wife of an Army veteran. Guzman Todd later confirmed at least one intimate encounter with Cunningham “during a period of marital separation.” Cunningham is an Army reservist, and the Army said this week it is investigating the allegations.
“The whole premise of Cal Cunningham’s campaign has imploded over the last four days. So clearly it’s going to be a factor,” Tillis said. “I’m not going to call on him to get out of the race. I’m calling on him to be transparent and provide a full explanation.”
Cunningham has resumed campaign activities after Tillis’s coronavirus infection forced the two candidates to quarantine. He lashed Tillis for not clinching a deal on more coronavirus relief on Thursday in a press release that made no mention of Cunningham’s own cloud of scandal.
Rachel Petri, a spokeswoman for Cunningham, said Tillis is behind in the race due to his positions on healthcare and “colossally botching the response to this pandemic.”
“Now he’s trying to exploit a personal matter to make desperate attacks in hopes it saves his political career,” Petri said.
Republicans are now running ads against Cunningham’s indiscretion and judgment, but they’re being outspent. Cunningham’s campaign is set to swamp Tillis on the airwaves over the next week. Among outside groups, Democrats have slightly more money booked for TV ads than Republicans, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
North Carolina is a major presidential swing state — but in polls prior to the last week, Tillis was running behind Trump. His evolution from a senator who stood against Trump’s national emergency on the border and negotiated immigration with Democrats to among the most steadfast Trump defenders left him vulnerable. Last fall, he was squeezed by conservatives who saw him as a weak defender of the president, then appealed to the right to ward off a brief primary challenge.
But with Cunningham staggering, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said there’s now “reason for us to be at least hopeful” about keeping the chamber.
“When you set yourself up and raise the bar really high for yourself and crash and burn at your own hand, that’s a pretty hard thing to overcome,” he said of Cunningham. “The entire majority of the United States Senate could rest not just on this one race, but this one issue.”
Democrats say their core message that Tillis too close to Trump and too hellbent on scrapping Obamacare will not change.
“Republicans are in a really tough place nationally, and they’re trying to hang on. But what they can’t lose sight of is what matters most to the voters,” said JB Poersch, who runs the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, which is heavily invested in North Carolina.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) declined to specifically comment on the race on Thursday but pointed to a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee statement backing Cunningham. John Verdejo, a Democratic National Committee member in North Carolina, said there was disappointment in the affair, but not to the point where people are “turning their back on Cal Cunningham.”
“I kind of look at it as an act of desperation,” he said of Republicans’ new tactics. “They have nothing else to run on.”
Tillis would probably be in even better shape politically had he not contracted coronavirus last week, one of three recent infections in the Senate GOP. He was photographed without a mask at a White House reception for Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett, though he wore one while outside at her nomination announcement.
Tillis is set to return to Washington next week to push Barrett’s nomination through from his perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said in the interview that everyone in the room had been tested for Covid-19 and called his infection a “testament that you should never let your guard down.” Asked if Cunningham might have let his guard down in a close Senate race, Tillis scoffed.
“He let his family down. And he let his supporters down for months. And it just happened to come to light,” Tillis said. “He didn’t let his guard down. He made a decision.”
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