Four decades ago, it didn’t really matter who won the race for an open U.S. Senate seat in Michigan in terms of which party controlled the chamber. But in North Carolina this year, it could make all the difference in the world.
Cal Cunningham, a former Democratic state senator who is married with two children, is running against incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who is quarantining after being diagnosed with COVID-19. But late last week a “sexting” scandal involving Cunningham has the potential to shake things up.
Tillis had been behind Cunningham in the polls by six points, according to the RealClearPolitics average. A poll released early this week, after the sexting story broke, showed Cunningham still ahead by five points, with less than one month until Election Day. Early voting begins on Oct. 15 in North Carolina.
After the story about Cunningham’s sexual messages with Arlene Guzman Todd, a Los Angeles public relations executive, broke last Friday, the Democrat apologized on Saturday and declared he had no plans to drop out of the race. However, on Monday he canceled a previously scheduled appearance at a town hall
His campaign also stopped running Facebook ads for fundraising purposes on Friday when the scandal broke. The Cunningham campaign launched numerous new ads on Oct. 1 with a “Fight Back Fund” theme and an apparent intent to continue fundraising in the new quarter. But each ad ended Oct. 1 or Oct. 2, when the story broke.
Additionally, Cunningham has not tweeted from his campaign account since Oct. 2 when he gave well wishes to Tillis for a speedy recovery related to his COVID-19 illness. As of Tuesday morning, the campaign has not posted any new fundraising ads on Facebook.
But, wait, there is more! NOW A LAWYER HAS COME FORWARD CLAIMING CUNNINGHAM HAS CARRIED ON AN AFFAIR WITH ANOTHER WOMAN SINCE 2012!
Remember, the Tarheel State boasts the gold standard political cheater in John Edwards, the Democrat nominee for vice president in 2004. We won’t bother to go into the salacious details of that abomination.
Now comes his GOP opponent, Thom Tillis, who ignores the old adage that, when your rival is in the throes of destroying himself, just stand back, hold his coat and shut up. Instead, Tillis has opined that Cunningham ought to be prepared to answer to the voters.
“Cal is trying to finesse (his message to Ms. Todd) as an errant text, but we now have a second report,” Tillis told Fox News on Tuesday. “Cal owes the people of North Carolina a full explanation. On the debate stage last week, Cal said it’s about integrity and I agree. His family should be kept private — he’s got teenage children — but Cal owes North Carolinians, all of the voters a full and thorough explanation.”
There is also this: “It is clear that adultery is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It is not clear whether sexting has something to do with a criminal infraction under the code. Perhaps it is conduct unbecoming an officer. I don’t know,” said attorney Mark Sullivan, a retired Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps officer, about Cunningham’s status as an officer in the military reserve.
At the very least, Cunningham’s conduct could “make it impossible for him or her to be promoted,” or it could “result in a prompt retirement,” Sullivan added.
“He is an officer in the military,” Tillis argued. “He’s also subject to disciplinary action just on the basis of what he’s admitted to.”
Democrats have continued to voice support for Cunningham, and have said that they will focus on policy instead of the candidate’s private life — although their statements came out before the news of the possible second lovebird.
“The polls I’ve seen show that Medicaid expansion … (and) health care is the No. 1 issue in North Carolina,” said Rep. Darren Jackson (D-NC), “and that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next month.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has also said that it stands by its endorsement of Cunningham and will continue to run ads for him.
So, what will it be? Should North Carolinians give Cunningham a pass, because, after all, next to Edwards he’s a piker.
Consider this: Anyone who knows squat about Michigan political history remembers what happened in the race between two Michigan Congressmen, Democrat Donald W. Riegle, Jr., and Republican Marvin Esch, for an open seat for the U.S. Senate in 1976, because incumbent Democrat Phil Hart was dying of cancer and had announced he wouldn’t run for a fourth term (he passed away less than two months after the election).
Back then, when Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford was running for election to a full term as president against Democrat Jimmy Carter, Riegle and Esch were locked in a tight race in which the Democrat’s 19-point lead had all but evaporated with less than two weeks left in the campaign.
Then the Detroit News, which had endorsed Esch, splashed a sensational story across its front page — transcripts of aural tape recordings secretly made by a former Riegle staffer while she and the Congressman had enjoyed an extramarital affair seven years earlier when his first marriage was breaking up. The sound bites were far raunchier than anything that has been revealed so far between Cunningham and his paramours.
A defensive Riegle was forced to publicly apologize for the indiscretion, calling it “a foolish mistake that has been a source of great regret to me.”
And a funny thing happened: Far from hurting Riegle, the story appeared to have helped him. Riegle contended he had been smeared by the News, which had endorsed Esch, Riegle claimed Esch had distorted his record in Congress and that this was just another example of what the Republican would try to exploit. There were even whisperings that Esch’s wife, Olga, had been the one to leak the tapes to the News.
The result? Voters decided it was a partisan cheap shot that had no genuine relevance to the race. Riegle’s slide in the polls not only halted, he went on to win by six points and serve three terms in the U.S. Senate before hanging it up in the wake of the “Keating Five” savings-and-loan scandal.
The same thing could very easily happen now in North Carolina, even with the passage of time and the advent of the “woke” Me, Too era.
Be careful, be very careful, Thom Tillis.
As for Riegle, he is now 82 years old and has endorsed and campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the Vermont senator’s two presidential campaigns. Riegle himself has been a highly-paid flack in the nation’s capital for the past two and a half decades. Cunningham would be a perfect client for him.
Maybe he already is.
Timothy Sullivan says
Great story, Bill.
Lisa Haverdink says
Hah! On and on and on. The proverbial sex scandals…
While Tillis may not necessarily gain votes in his race against Cunningham, as Bill Ballenger cautions, I think the latter’s sexting scandal will hurt the Biden-Harris ticket in the Tarheel state’s popular vote just the same as the foiled Whitmer plot will likely hurt the Trump-Pence ticket in Michigan’s popular vote.
Lawrence (Larry) Kestenbaum says
The Detroit News’ big mistake in 1976 was running a long series of transcripts of what Riegle and his partner said to each other in bed. At least in southeast Michigan, where voters saw the paper, it surely provoked visions of one’s own sweet nothings being printed in the newspaper.
I don’t have the statistics handy, but I do remember that in Muskegon County, over on the other side of the state, where people heard about the scandal but were less likely to have seen the days of printed transcripts, Riegle did not do as well.