RALEIGH — Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis appears to have momentum in his bid for re-election against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, after multiple affair allegations against Cunningham were confirmed by the former state senator.
In two public polls, published by Emerson College and The Washington Post this week, Cunningham led by 1 and 2 points, respectively. In September and early October, Cunningham led some polls by as many 10 points.
The race for the seat, which has been the most expensive in the nation, was rocked first by Tillis’ COVID-19 positive test on Friday, Oct. 2. Late that night, Cunningham confirmed that sexual text messages obtained by the website NationalFile.com were authentic.
Later, Cunningham admitted he had physical encounters with the woman, Arlene Guzman Todd, the wife of a combat veteran. A second affair has also been alleged, but not confirmed, and Cunningham in a Zoom press conference on Oct. 9 refused to say how many more affairs he has had.
A memo released by the Tillis campaign said the race has been “dramatically and permanently altered, not by sex, but by the hypocritical lack of judgment and truthfulness now fully on display by Cal Cunningham.”
Repeated efforts by North State Journal to interview Cunningham or a member of his campaign staff have been ignored.
Cunningham told WNCN-TV in an impromptu interview on Oct. 7, “I’ve made it clear that I’ve hurt my family and that I’ve disappointed my supporters, and I’m taking responsibility for that. I’m very clear that this campaign isn’t about my personal life; it’s about the people of North Carolina; it’s about the issues that are important to North Carolinians, and that’s what I’m staying focused on,” Cunningham said.
The Cunningham campaign has tried to pivot to discussing issues like health care. That same day, though, was when the Army Reserve confirmed it was investigating the conduct by Lt. Col. James Cunningham, calling him by his official first name.
Adultery has long been a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Last year the wording was broadened to include any “extramarital sexual contact.” Service members can face a maximum penalty of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and confinement for a year.
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley held a press conference on Oct. 14 featuring Sgt. Josh Feeback, United States Army, Ret.; and Sean Kilbane, United States Army veteran.
“These are very serious allegations, and it’s very concerning,” said Whatley.
Kilbane harshly criticized Cunningham for engaging in an affair with the wife of a fellow veteran. He also noted that Cunningham has failed to answer questions about the other alleged affair and “other women.”
“I am disgusted at his behavior and how he has responded to it,” said Kilbane. “The people of North Carolina expect better from a United States senator.”
Kilbane also asked that if Cunningham was “willing to risk his candidacy” to have an affair with another veteran’s wife then “what kind of self-serving behavior are we to expect out of him if he were to go to Washington, D.C.?”
Also on Oct. 14, a Federal Elections Commission complaint was filed against Cunningham by Americans for Public Trust, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group. The group is asking the FEC to examine possible campaign violations.
At the heart of the complaint are travel expenses logged by Cunningham’s campaign to California in early March of this year. The date of the travel potentially corresponds to allegations of a sexual encounter in Los Angeles.
Tillis, for his part, returned to work during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett last week.
He returned to the campaign trail on Saturday, hosting a get-out-the-vote event with South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in Mecklenburg County and visiting early voting locations in Guilford and Forsyth counties.
The Tillis campaign also released a new TV ad in the race, taking aim at Cunningham’s campaign for being “one big lie.”
Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat said in a statement that “the real Cal Cunningham is a hypocrite who disgraced his family, the Army and the people of North Carolina. Voters now know that they cannot trust Cal Cunningham and they will reject him on November 3rd.”
During a campaign appearance in Durham on Sunday, Gov. Roy Cooper and former Vice President Joe Biden briefly discussed Cunningham, with Cooper saying the scandals were “frustrating” but believed he would “get across the line too.”
Control of the U.S. Senate is widely expected to hinge on this race, along with close races in Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan and Montana.