The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In N.C., voters call Cunningham’s infidelity reckless, shocking. They still vote for the Democrat.

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, left, and  Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) greet each other after a televised debate Oct. 1 in Raleigh, N.C.
Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, left, and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) greet each other after a televised debate Oct. 1 in Raleigh, N.C. (Gerry Broome/AP)

CHARLOTTE — North Carolina voter Ron Hannah remembers his visceral reaction when he heard in early October that Cal Cunningham, the Democrat trying to unseat Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, had sent sexually suggestive texts to a woman who wasn't his wife.

“I was like, ugh!” says Hannah, a 36-year-old Charlotte resident who works in IT. “Flabbergasted.”

When another report revealed that Cunningham and the woman had been intimate in Cunningham’s home, where the Iraq War veteran has raised his two children, Hannah, a Democrat, similarly gaped.

“Oh, Lord,” he recalled thinking.

But last week, Hannah decided to vote for Cunningham anyway.

“In reality,” he said of the scandal, “I don’t care. I want Tillis out.”

But Hannah is far from alone in his calculation. Multiple voter interviews as well as recent polls in the Tar Heel state show that the sex scandal consuming Cunningham has not doomed his candidacy. Polls immediately after the scandal broke showed Cunningham maintaining a slight lead, but that his personal favorability ratings had worsened.

The situation underscores how much the competitive Senate race, as well as others around the nation, have become about President Trump and the GOP. Democratic and independent voters angry with the president’s handling of the pandemic and his divisive tactics are laser focused on ousting Trump as well as punishing Republicans who have fallen so squarely behind him.

The candidates taking them on have become more of an afterthought.

“I’m not a fan of infidelity. It seemed reckless, for sure,” said Allison Sokol, a 29-year-old graduate student at Duke University in Durham. But “Thom Tillis is so awful and so dangerous for the state, I’m definitely going to vote for Cal Cunningham.”

Republicans remain hopeful that the scandal will be Cunningham’s undoing, despite Election Day being less than two weeks away. They point to the Democrat’s drop in favorability ratings, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee said the GOP’s internal polling shows Tillis narrowing the gap as Cunningham’s negatives creep upward.

The GOP is focusing intently on Cunningham’s infidelity, arguing that the man who held himself out as a moral leader, highlighting his military service and family, is a fraud. Shortly before the scandal broke, Cunningham invited a local TV station into his home for an interview with him and his wife, Elizabeth.

Tillis’s campaign, the NRSC, Senate Leadership Fund, and conservative outside group American Crossroads are all running ads attacking Cunningham for his actions.

“His campaign was one big lie,” says the narrator in the newest Tillis campaign ad. “What else is he hiding?” asks another ad sponsored by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Republicans.

The message certainly resonates with some voters. Republican Rita Doubiago, a 61-year-old sales rep from Charlotte, thinks Cunningham’s behavior should hurt him. She cast her vote for Tillis and Trump last week.

“How can you trust anybody that doesn’t have the morals to do what’s right?” she asked. “If you’re in public office, you should be held to a higher standard.”

But several voters interviewed for this story had a different opinion.

Jeff Hymes, a 29-year-old scientist at a biotech start-up outside Raleigh, doesn’t condone Cunningham’s behavior, but contrasts it with what he sees as Tillis’s own credibility problem. Tillis advocated wearing masks, for instance, then didn’t wear one at a White House event and within days tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In February 2019, he said he opposed Trump using emergency powers to steer money to a border wall with Mexico — then reversed course and backed the president.

“I don’t think voters have forgotten that,” Hymes said.

I support Trump’s vision on border security. But I would vote against the emergency.

When first reported the intimate texts earlier this month, Cunningham acknowledged sending them and apologized, issuing a statement saying he hurt his family and takes “complete responsibility.” He said he would remain in the race.

Democrats are privately uneasy with the Cunningham situation, even as they stick with their embattled candidate.

This past weekend, when Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden visited the state to campaign with local Democrats, Cunningham was notably absent. And Gov. Roy Cooper (D), who also is on the Nov. 3 ballot seeking a second term, was caught in a hot mic moment telling Biden the situation was “frustrating.”

Still, Democrats note that Cunningham, who raised $43 million, has plenty of cash to deliver his message to voters. If he focuses on the issues, they believe, he can eke out a win.

Cunningham spoke to voters in a Monday video call with the outside Democratic group Protect Our Care and local Democratic congressmen and candidates. He also appeared in a video with Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“There’s too much at stake here, from women’s health care to health care for those with preexisting conditions,” Cunningham said in a Zoom video. “When I beat Thom Tillis, with y’alls help and support, this will be the seat that takes the gavel out of Mitch McConnell’s hands. This is where we take the majority. We’re going to win it!”

The Tillis-Cunningham faceoff, which many political handicappers believe could be the tipping point race for who controls the Senate, remains extremely close. On Tuesday, a Washington Post-ABC poll found that 49 percent of likely voters support Cunningham while 47 percent back Tillis, a gap within the survey’s 4.5 percentage-point margin of sampling error.

Even independent voters are split, with 48 percent wanting Cunningham while 45 percent prefer Tillis.

Republicans argue that the scandal is more than about sex; it’s about the character of an Army veteran. Cunningham is an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, and the woman he was involved with was married to a fellow combat veteran. The Army Reserve has opened an investigation into whether Cunningham engaged improperly with a subordinate’s family, in possible violation of the rules concerning adultery under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Pressed on the military investigation, a campaign spokeswoman said Cunningham “will participate in this process, but it does not change the stakes of this election.” Republicans, however, beg to differ.

“If Cal Cunningham cheats and lies while he asks for your vote, he will continue to cheat and lie as your U.S. Senator,” Tillis said in a statement Tuesday.

But even voters in veteran households don’t see the controversy as critical to their votes: According to The Post-ABC poll only 28 percent of voters in military households say the affair is extremely or very important in their Election Day decision.

Instead, voters tend to care more about Tillis’s support of Trump, according to the poll: More than 55 percent said Tillis’s backing of Trump was key to their vote, including majorities in both parties. Even less than half of White Evangelical Protestants, who support Tillis by 82 percent, say the scandal is important to whom they choose on Election Day.

Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005

Democrats say the crux of the GOP’s challenge is an issue of hypocrisy. Republicans want to attack Cunningham for infidelity, but they back a president embroiled in a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who claims he sexually assaulted her decades ago and Trump’s alleged involvement in a 2016 scheme to silence two women who claimed they had affairs with him.

Trump was also caught on video boasting about grabbing women by their genitals — a fact not lost on many North Carolina voters.

“It seems hypocritical to throw him into the fire when we’ve been putting up with so much worse,” Brandon Barber, 32, an unaffiliated voter who works in finance and served as an Army medic in Iraq, said of Cunningham.

N.C. Democratic challenger apologizes for intimate texts to a woman who is not his wife

The Post-ABC News poll found the controversy barely factored in the race, with only about 1 in 4 North Carolina voters saying Cunningham’s extramarital affair was “extremely” or “very important” to their choice for Senate — including less than 41 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of independents.

Far more, 81 percent, said the issue of who controls the upper chamber was “extremely” or “very” important to their ballot decision.

One disadvantage for Republicans looking to capitalize on the scandal — tens of thousands of voters in the state have already cast their ballots.

Consider Patrick Hymes, a 58-year-old Republican who voted for Tillis six years ago. This election, Hymes had decided to vote for Cunningham, partly because of his son Jeff’s enthusiasm for the candidate. But when he heard about the affair, he had second thoughts. He said to himself, Cunningham is “just another politician.”

By then, however, Hymes had already sent in his absentee ballot for Cunningham.

“If I was waiting until election day to vote, I probably would be undecided,” he said.

Bade reported from Washington. Kelley reported from North Carolina.