(CNN)President Donald Trump’s eroded political standing has hurt GOP senators in crucial races across the country, but Republicans now hope a sex scandal in North Carolina will help them fend off the Trump effect in a race that’s central to holding the Senate majority.
Text messages leaked last week and reports detailing Democrat Cal Cunningham’s alleged extramarital affair this summer have undercut the image he has carefully crafted, as a man of integrity who serves in the Army Reserve. While Democratic and Republican strategists say it’s too early to know how the scandal may influence his race against GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, particularly in the age of Trump, Republicans now have a new line of attack — and are planning to put millions of dollars behind it in the final days of the campaign.
Tillis, and the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, quickly launched television ads attacking Cunningham for his indiscretion after reports of text messages indicated he engaged in a sexual relationship with public relations strategist Arlene Guzman Todd. Cunningham said on Wednesday that he was “deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused in my personal life” and apologized to his supporters. His campaign attacked Republicans for failing to respect his family’s privacy. Guzman Todd did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
Brad Todd, a strategist for Tillis’ campaign who is not related to Guzman Todd, said in a statement that the Senate 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.”
“This unfolding episode destroys the foundation of Cunningham’s campaign by demonstrating that he cannot be trusted at any level,” he added.
The race in North Carolina is crucial to the future control of the chamber, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority. While Trump’s unpopularity has given Democrats a growing number of opportunities to take back the Senate, the North Carolina race has long been viewed as one of their best pickup chances, as Cunningham posted eye-popping fundraising numbers in the summer and fall and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden built a narrow lead in the state.
With Trump’s widely panned debate performance last week, coupled with voter disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his own erratic behavior after being infected with the disease, a Republican strategist involved in Senate races told CNN that their private polling shows Trump underperforming GOP senators in all but a handful of states.
In North Carolina, the question is whether Cunningham’s personal scandal is enough to give Tillis a late boost. Four years ago, Trump won the state by less than four points. But a New York Times/Siena College poll showed in mid-September Biden at 45% to Trump’s 44%, and Cunningham leading Tillis 42 to 37%.
“Right now, the President is like a rock on almost all our candidates,” the GOP source said.
As the controversy has unfolded, Democrats have stood by Cunningham.
Cunningham, a lawyer and former state senator, apologized to his supporters on Wednesday night at a League of Conservation Voters event via Zoom. He has said he would participate in the Army Reserve’s investigation into his conduct, while his campaign has charged that Republicans are exploiting a personal matter for political gain and ignoring his family’s request for privacy.
“Throughout this election, Senator Tillis has trailed in the polls because of his failed record of trying to take health care protections away from 1.7 million North Carolinians with pre-existing conditions, rewarding his corporate special interest donors while working families get left further behind, and colossally botching the response to this pandemic,” said Cunningham spokeswoman Rachel Petri in a statement.
Text messages between Guzman and a friend provided to CNN by a source show that she and Cunningham engaged in romantic banter over the summer, but she eventually grew frustrated by his lack of attention. The messages were first reported by National File.
“Like is he stupid or what,” she asked her friend. “He knows I’m Latina (crazy)”
“And can tank his campaign,” she added.
CNN did not obtain the text messages from Guzman Todd. She did not respond to multiple requests for comment and messages left on her phone.
Guzman Todd told the Associated Press that she and Cunningham had an intimate encounter in July in North Carolina — after meeting up in Los Angeles in March where she said the two were not intimate. Her husband, Army veteran Jeremy Todd, said in a statement to the Raleigh News & Observer that Cunningham should drop out of the race. Todd did not respond to a message from CNN.
Cunningham has not denied the affair. But he also hasn’t acknowledged he had an affair in the first place.
“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” the Democratic candidate said in a statement this week. “The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family’s privacy be respected in this personal matter. I remain grateful and humbled by the ongoing support that North Carolinians have extended in this campaign, and in the remaining weeks before this election I will continue to work to earn the opportunity to fight for the people of our state.”
It’s too early to tell the political impact of the scandal on the race, which could very well determine the future control of the Senate.
More than 420,000 North Carolinians have already voted, according to the US Elections Project maintained by University of Florida political science professor Michael McDonald, potentially limiting some impact of the late-breaking scandal. But that’s still just a fraction of the more than 4.6 million cast in the 2016 Senate election.
Matt Case, a clinical mental health counselor in Chapel Hill, said he sent in his ballot for Cunningham three weeks ago.
“Does this dampen my enthusiasm for him as a leader? Most definitely,” said Case, who also supported Cunningham’s opponent Erica Smith in the Democratic primary. “But given the binary choice we have, he is clearly the right choice in this moment. Hopefully he will win — and we will have a better alternative next time around.”
It is just one in a series of shocks to North Carolina’s political system this past month.
The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18. Only eight days later, Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace her on the Supreme Court and cement a conservative majority for a generation. Then Trump faced Biden in the first presidential debate, after which nearly two-thirds of Americans said the President has not done enough to condemn White supremacists, according to a CNN poll. Tillis then announced he contracted the coronavirus and told WRAL-TV he made a mistake by not wearing a mask at an indoor reception at the White House for Barrett.
“It’s the cumulative impact of all these controversies that has (the) greatest effect on our candidates,” one senior Republican source said.
The state is continuing to grapple with the economic and health care crises caused by the spread of coronavirus. The rate of infections is rising in North Carolina, and the virus will likely be the third highest cause of death this year in the highly populated county that encompasses Charlotte, trailing only cancer and heart disease, according to the Charlotte Observer. About 3,700 people in North Carolina have succumbed to the virus and over 225,000 people have contracted it.
Still, Republicans think that Cunningham’s scandal will make a difference with voting already underway. Trump, who has been involved in his own sex scandals, including paying out hush money to silence allegations of his extramarital affairs, mentioned the Cunningham controversy on Thursday in an interview with Fox Business, saying, “That was not good timing.”
“If a week from now Cunningham is still up, then nobody cares, but I don’t believe that’s going to be the case,” said North Carolina Republican strategist Charles Hellwig.
Tillis campaign consultant Paul Shumaker said Cunningham and the Democrats are avoiding “talking about this at all costs” after touting his personal integrity earlier in the race.
“He tried to present himself as the Andy Griffith of North Carolina,” Shumaker said. “It turns out he’s become more (like) John Edwards.”
After his brief apology at the League of Conservation Voters event, Cunningham spent the vast majority of his remarks on his policy priorities: pledging to pass further financial coronavirus relief, expanding Medicaid, protecting health care insurance for those with pre-existing conditions, and bashing Tillis for being “too weak to stand up to this administration” and its failures in responding to the pandemic.
Some North Carolina observers say that Cunningham should more forcefully address questions surrounding his personal conduct.
“He’s hurting himself by being in the bunker,” said North Carolina political strategist Brad Crone, who is independent and unaffiliated with either campaign. “I just think he needs to be much more transparent, much more open, much more accountable. Apologize, do the story, do the press conference, and then move on.”
In interviews with CNN, Cunningham’s supporters and donors said that they would stick by him and still believed he would win even though they recognized the story could hurt him with some voters.
Richard Gusler, a Raleigh-based attorney, said he would “support a dead possum over Thom Tillis,” objecting to the senator’s conservative views of LGBTQ rights and efforts to slash the state’s unemployment benefits in the state House, where he served as speaker.
“I’m not happy about what Cal Cunningham did recently at all,” said Gusler. “But, I have a hard time understanding how any Trump supporter could be giving him a hard time about sex texting when the President of the United States (had) unprotected sex with a porn star, and then paid her off to keep her mouth shut.”
Trump has denied allegations he had an affair with Stormy Daniels, an erotic film star and director.
Another Cunningham supporter, Michael Tiemann of Chapel Hill, said the Democrat’s affair paled in comparison to other issues, predominately the administration’s response to the pandemic, saying, “We can’t realistically do our normal life because of the President’s behavior and because of a Republican agenda that is contrary to science.”
“The particular peccadilloes of this case are not the issue that is going to move the needle,” he added.