Democrat Cal Cunningham struggled to refocus his Senate campaign on policy issues after acknowledging an extramarital relationship last week, using a Friday video meeting with North Carolina activists as his first chance to face local media.
Cunningham, whose race against Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is considered a key bellwether for the Senate majority, repeatedly ducked questions about his relationship with a California woman, declining to address repeated requests to know whether more affair allegations are coming.
“Let me be very clear, I’m hearing from North Carolinians that are telling me, in no uncertain terms, that they want their Senate candidate talking about the issues, like those that we’re talking about right here, today,” Cunningham said, after a reporter asked “are there more women” and the candidate tried to move the discussion back to the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“People are tired of hearing about personal issues. They want somebody focused on them. They want somebody who is going to be a champion for the things that matter in their lives,” Cunningham said.
Currently an officer in the Army Reserve, Cunningham’s behavior has sparked an investigation related to whether there was an affair, if it occurred with the wife of another Army soldier, under its “good order” requirements for officers to maintain.
Tillis and his GOP allies have run advertisements questioning Cunningham’s judgment, hoping to pull the race back in his direction after several months of drift for the incumbent. Before the scandal, Cunningham had opened up a small lead in polls. Then last Friday the race got turned upside down. First, Tillis announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, likely from his attendance at the White House announcement of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as the Supreme Court nominee, shuttering his campaign office and beginning a quarantine.
Then, a few hours later, Cunningham confirmed that illicit text messages between him and the California woman were real. He spent most of this week hunkered down, dealing with continued fallout from the story and taping an apology message that aired Wednesday during a League of Conservation Voters event.
On Friday, Cunningham tried to turn the discussion back to the pandemic, blaming Tillis and Republicans for not advancing another relief package to help with the economic and health crises spawned by the virus.
When he opened the discussion to North Carolina reporters, all six questions he took dealt with the infidelity allegations, deflecting each with a similar answer that voters care about issues.
“I have taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. And I’ve apologized for it, I’ve apologized to the supporters of this campaign,” Cunningham said. “And now this campaign is about much more, much bigger than me.”
Late Friday the National Republican Senatorial Committee decided to go back onto the airwaves with $3.5 million in new ad reservations against Cunningham, according to a GOP official monitoring media buys who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy. It marks the first time the NRSC has been on air in North Carolina since Aug. 30, having allowed other outside GOP groups to carry anti-Cunningham ads. The new funds indicate Republicans intend to go after Cunningham’s vulnerability on the issue.