The broader impact on the battle for the Senate is more clear: It’s one of the worst possible races for this to happen in for Democrats. North Carolina had been shaping up as one of their best chances to clinch the Senate majority next year. And they will need the Senate to accomplish much of anything if they win the White House next year.
Now that could be in jeopardy with recently revealed texts like this from Cunningham, who is married with two children, to a public relations specialist who is also married: “Would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now.” They were published Friday by NationalFile.com, and Cunningham apologized Friday for sending them.
Democrats probably will need to knock out four Senate Republicans to get the majority. (We’re calculating that based on the likelihood they lose Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama. Also, if Democrat Joe Biden wins the White House, the vice president can cast tie-breaking votes). The four Republicans most likely to lose, based on our rankings, are:
- Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado
- Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona
- Sen. Susan Collins in Maine
- Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina
While the first two states have been leaning Democrats’ way for a while, North Carolina and Maine were toss-ups. Polls have started breaking for Democrats recently, literally days before Cunningham’s revelation. A University of Massachusetts at Lowell poll published last week showed Cunningham up six points over Tillis, and he was closing in on 50 percent of support for all voters in North Carolina.
Cunningham did not acknowledge any relationship beyond sending the texts, but they are explicit enough, and North Carolina is a state with conservative roots. It’s not hard to imagine this is the kind of thing that turns away the independent, suburban voters Cunningham needs to oust Tillis. Tillis, meanwhile, announced Friday that he tested positive for the coronavirus after appearing at the White House as President Trump nominated his Supreme Court pick.
Democrats still have other options to win back the majority if North Carolina or another in the top four doesn’t work out for them. But they only get more difficult the farther down the list they go.
The next one would be Iowa, where Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is trying to hang on against Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Polls show the race basically tied or Greenfield with a slight lead. But Iowa is an even more conservative state than North Carolina. Trump won it by 10 points in 2016, although he probably won’t do that well again. Trump won North Carolina by 3.6 points.
After that, Democrats have a close Senate race in Montana — a pro-Trump state — and two Senate races in Georgia, which are certainly competitive but which could go to runoffs in January when Democrats won’t have enthusiasm from the presidential race to help them. Polls show Democrat Jaime Harrison tied with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) in South Carolina, but there just may not be enough Democratic voters there to get Harrison the win.
Even in a perfect election, Democrats could get very close to taking back the Senate majority and still fall short. Cunningham, a former state senator and veteran who up until this point had been running a solid campaign, has been crucial to Democrats’ carefully laid plans to take back the Senate.
A sexting scandal by their star candidate in one of their marquee races in the final weeks wasn’t in those plans.