The sex scandal that could keep the Senate in McConnell’s hands
Democrats have a clear chance of winning back the Senate majority next month. But if they fall short, Cal Cunningham can be to blame.
President Donald Trump is sagging almost everywhere that matters, putting more and more Senate races in the line of fire for a Democratic takeover. But all of a sudden, Cunningham has clouded over a fairly obvious democratic path to victory that runs right through North Carolina.
The Democratic candidate's infidelity and reluctance to deal fully with it is now a stick to the endangered Republican Senator Thom Tillis. Tillis' fortune just deteriorated a week ago when Cunningham reported staggering donation numbers in addition to a month-long head start in public and private surveys.
Democrats can win the majority without North Carolina, but the path is more complicated. And the Democrats insist that Tillis hasn't caught up in the polls yet.
But the fundamentals of the race have changed: Cunningham is on defense and seen as a ducking question about an affair with an estranged veteran's wife. Cunningham's story tops North Carolina news programs and front pages. And Tillis attacks and goes after Cunningham himself instead of relying on political proxy.
"This undermines a voter's confidence in Cal, especially if you find yourself in the undecided camp," Tillis said in an interview from North Carolina, where he is in isolation after contracting the coronavirus. "There is no question that North Carolina is the most important state to hold a majority in the Senate."
If Tillis can make a stunning comeback, Republicans are hoping he can save their majority - even if Joe Biden defeats Trump. And while the Republican still sees a way for Trump to win in the first term and said nothing critical of the president, he also stated that he is running as a control for a potential president, Biden.
“The best control for a Biden presidency is that Republicans have a majority in the Senate. And I think “Checks and Balances” will resonate with voters in North Carolina, ”he said.
North Carolina is one of the few top states that will rule the majority. Republicans currently have a 53:47 advantage, but Democrats are preferred to win in Arizona and Colorado. Republicans have an advantage in Alabama, and races in Iowa and Maine are very competitive. Democrats have also brought races into play in deeper red areas like Alaska, Montana, South Carolina, and Kansas, expanding their path back to power.
But Josh Holmes, a close confidante of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said "without question, the clearest way" for Democrats to win the Senate was through North Carolina. "And it looks like Cal Cunningham threw him away."
Steven Law, who heads the Senate Leadership Fund, the powerful super-PAC closely associated with McConnell, admitted that the race "is kind of frozen with a gap in the voting between Tillis and Cunningham". But now he sees a shock.
“It changes our potential to win this race. I wouldn't say it's crucial, but it's a key ingredient. With the potential to win North Carolina, it could build a bridge to hold the majority, ”said Law.
A Democrat familiar with the recent polls said while voters are aware of the issue and the race may deteriorate, "people are not shifting their support." And Democrats are mocking the possibility of voters punishing Cunningham after Trump was repeatedly charged with sexual misconduct, including the president's own words in Access Hollywood, released a month before the 2016 election.
"It's a little hard for me to take seriously the Republicans' shock and horror at what this guy did," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "Pretty much everything a Democratic candidate could do has been eclipsed by what Donald Trump does every day that Republicans take care of."
But Tillis says this is different because Cunningham made character, integrity, and military background an integral part of his race. Last Friday, outlets reported that Cunningham had sent sexually stimulating texts to Arlene Guzman Todd, a California public relations manager and the wife of an Army veteran. Guzman Todd later confirmed at least one intimate encounter with Cunningham "during a period of marital separation". Cunningham is an Army reservist and the Army said this week it is investigating the allegations.
"The whole premise of Cal Cunningham's campaign has imploded in the last four days. So it's clearly going to be a factor," said Tillis. "I'm not going to call him to get out of the race. I ask him to be transparent and make a full statement. "
Cunningham has resumed campaigning after Tillis' coronavirus infection forced the two candidates to quarantine. In a press release that didn't mention Cunningham's cloud of scandal, he beat up Tillis for not closing a deal on more coronavirus relief on Thursday.
Rachel Petri, a spokeswoman for Cunningham, said Tillis fell behind in the race for positioning himself in health care and "hugely botched the response to this pandemic."
"Now he's trying to take advantage of a personal matter to launch desperate attacks in the hopes that this will save his political career," said Petri.
Republicans are now running ads against Cunningham's indiscretion and judgment, but they're being issued. Cunningham's campaign is slated to get Tillis on the air next week. According to Advertising Analytics, Democrats have booked slightly more money on television advertising among outside groups than Republicans.
North Carolina is a major presidential swing state - but in polls before last week, Tillis was chasing Trump. His development from a senator who stood up to Trump's national emergency on the border and negotiated immigration with Democrats to one of the staunchest Trump defenders left him vulnerable. Last fall, he was squeezed by Conservatives who viewed him as a weak defender for the president, and then appealed for the right to parry a brief primary challenge.
But with Cunningham's graduation, Senator Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) Said there is now "reason for us to be at least hopeful" to keep the chamber.
"If you stand up and set the bar high for yourself and you crash and burn, that's pretty hard to get over," he said of Cunningham. "The entire majority of the US Senate could rest not only on this one race, but also on this one issue."
Democrats say their core message that Tillis is too close to Trump and too eager to scrap Obamacare won't change.
“The Republicans are in a really tough position nationally and are trying to hold on. What they can't lose sight of is what's most important to the voters, ”said JB Poersch, who heads the Senate Democratic Majority PAC, which is heavily invested in North Carolina.
Senate Minority Chairman Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Declined to comment on the race Thursday, but cited a statement by the Senatorial Democratic Campaign Committee in support of Cunningham. John Verdejo, a member of the North Carolina Democratic Committee, said there was disappointment on the matter, but not to the point where people were "turning their backs on Cal Cunningham."
"I consider it an act of desperation," he said of the Republicans' new tactics. "You have nothing else to run."
Tillis would probably be in even better shape politically if he hadn't caught coronavirus last week, one of three recent infections in the Senate's GOP. He was photographed without a mask at a reception at the White House for Trump's Supreme Court election, Amy Coney Barrett, even though he was wearing one when she announced her nomination while outside.
Tillis will return to Washington next week to enforce Barrett's nomination for his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said in an interview that everyone in the room had been tested for Covid-19 and called his infection a "testament that you should never let your guard down". When asked if Cunningham could drop his guard in a close race in the Senate, Tillis scoffed.
“He let his family down. And he left his followers in the lurch for months. And it came to light by accident, ”said Tillis. "He did not disappoint his guard. He made a decision."
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