For a race filled with October surprises, North Carolina’s pivotal U.S. Senate race has remained stable in at least one area — polling.
Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, after a week of headlines about an alleged extramarital affair and his refusal to answer questions about it or others, led in three new polls over incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who has been isolating due to a positive coronavirus test.
Tillis returned to Washington for Wednesday’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett after being cleared by his doctor to return to work.
The three polls from Monmouth, Morning Consult and WRAL show Cunningham leading by four, six and 10 points respectively. Cunningham has trailed in just one poll since the beginning of July; an East Carolina University poll released last week showed a one-point lead for Tillis.
This week’s polls were in the field as the Cunningham scandal was breaking and during its aftermath.
“It’s been clear for a long time that North Carolinians are ready for new leadership that will get us through this crisis, get this economy moving again, and protect our health care,” Cunningham’s campaign manager Devan Barber wrote in a public memo Tuesday.
But Tillis and Republican allies continue to zero in on Cunningham’s personal misconduct and have launched a series of television ads in recent days aimed at persuading voters.
One Tillis campaign ad calls Cunningham’s campaign “one big lie,” while another from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released Tuesday, tags Cunningham as a “another political hypocrite.” The Tillis campaign also released a video of supportive veterans and Tillis being critical of Cunningham’s conduct.
“The Cal Cunningham of just a week ago was making his personal life the cornerstone of his campaign, but now that the real Cal Cunningham has been exposed, he no longer believes questions about his personal life are relevant,” Tillis campaign manager Luke Blanchat said in a statement last week.
The North Carolina race could determine which party holds control of the Senate and has brought in out-sized spending of nearly $250 million from the campaigns and outside groups. Libertarian Shannon Bray and Constitution Party candidate Kevin Hayes will also be on the Nov. 3 ballot. Voting is underway in North Carolina, and in-person early voting begins Thursday.
Cunningham took questions from reporters last week, but he did not provide answers about the possibility of more women coming forward or elaborate on his personal conduct.
“I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt I’ve caused in my personal life,” he said Friday. “I’ve apologized for it. I’ve said what I’m going to say about it.”
Cunningham made it clear where he would focus in the final weeks of the election, including health care. His campaign released a new ad focused on health care Monday.
“If I continue to hold Thom Tillis accountable for his failures, as we have, and I continue to focus on the issues of the lives of the people in this state, we will win this election,” Cunningham said.
Though he continues to lead in the polls, the scandal has damaged Cunningham in the eyes of some voters. His favorable rating is at 25%, down from 34% in September, according to Monmouth. His unfavorable number has risen from 22% in September to 33% now.
Cunningham, a married father of two, has admitted to exchanging sexual text messages with California public relations strategist Arlene Guzman Todd. Todd has acknowledged one intimate encounter with Cunningham.
Only 14% of voters feel that the sexting revelation disqualifies Cunningham from holding office, according to the Monmouth poll.
“In a normal time, it’d probably be a campaign sinker,” Meredith College political science professor Whitney Ross Manzo said of Cunningham’s scandal in a phone interview Monday. “In this election cycle thing, the thing most voters are going to be thinking about is the pandemic.”
Tillis’ favorable rating dropped over the last month as well, with 30% viewing him as favorable compared to 35% in September. His unfavorable rating is at 34%, down from 35%.
In the survey, 50% of those surveyed felt Tillis did not take the coronavirus pandemic seriously enough before he tested positive for COVID. Tillis has been a public proponent of mask-wearing, but twice at the White House was seen publicly not wearing one — at President Donald Trump’s nomination acceptance speech in August and at an event for Barrett’s nomination.
There have been more than 234,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in North Carolina and more than 3,800 deaths in the state, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Complaints against Cunningham
Jason G. Davis, a retired Army veteran and North Carolina resident, filed a complaint Oct. 7 with the Army Reserve Legal Command asking that “a full and complete investigation be conducted into the actions of” Cunningham “based on recent national media reports.”
Cunningham is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Messages The News & Observer left for Davis were not returned Tuesday.
The Army Inspector General’s office reviews allegations of fraud, waste and abuse, as well as potential violations of law or Army policy. Anyone can file a complaint with the Army IG alleging fraud, waste or abuse charges. Accusations on other matters, such as harassment, are limited to service members and Army civilians, though the Army IG will accept complaints from Army retirees in certain circumstances.
Townhall.com first reported the complaint.
The Army Reserve is investigating “the matters” involving Cunningham, the Army Reserve Command confirmed in a statement to McClatchy last week.
Extramarital affairs are a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Whether Cunningham could face charges under the UCMJ may depend upon whether he was on active duty at the time the extramarital activity took place, McClatchy previously reported.
A conservative group has filed a complaint against Cunningham with the Federal Election Commission, Fox News reported. The complaint, filed by Americans For Public Trust, asks that the commission determine if Cunningham used campaign resources for a March trip to California “for the furtherance of an extramarital affair.”
Todd told the AP that she met with Cunningham in March in Los Angeles, but she said it did not include intimate contact, unlike a second meeting in July in North Carolina.
Barber defends Cunningham
Rev. William Barber II, pastor of a Goldsboro church and co-founder of the National Poor People’s Campaign, which advocates for public policies that help low-income people, said it’s hypocritical to judge the two Senate candidates by different standards.
Since the public revelations of his marital infidelity, Cunningham “has owned some things and asked for forgiveness,” Barber said.
“If we’re talking about immorality, Cunningham is trying to get health care and living wages so people can live,” Barber said in a phone interview on Monday. “Meanwhile, Thom Tillis passed the most racist voter suppression law that literally blocked people’s right to vote. That’s sinful. That’s immoral.”
An election law passed by the North Carolina legislature in 2013 mandated voter ID, reduced early voting days and made other changes. Republicans said it would prevent voter fraud, but the courts struck it down on the grounds that it unconstitutionally targeted Black voters.
Barber said Republicans who have said Cunningham is unfit to serve in the Senate because of his personal behavior are hypocrites for supporting Trump, who has had several extramarital affairs and been publicly accused of sexual harassment by at least 18 women.
Republicans, Barber said, “cannot have it both ways. North Carolinians should not be fooled in this moment.”
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