LEXINGTON, North Carolina—In the final 24 hours before the Nov. 3 election, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) kept the schedule of a candidate fighting for his political life, criss-crossing the state for rallies and events, seemingly popping in front of every local TV camera available.
His Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, might have been expected, like Tillis, to try and wring every last bit of exposure out of the election’s final hours. However, Cunningham was nowhere to be found—by reporters and the general public, at least—on the campaign trail on Monday.
The reason why that’s the case is the same reason why Tillis confidently sauntered into Cunningham’s hometown of Lexington: to say just a few words about his opponent’s extramarital affair.
“His personal behavior is fair game,” said Tillis to several dozen supporters and a few TV cameras at a local GOP office around the corner from Cunningham’s personal law practice. “He’s run a campaign, spent tens of millions of dollars, looking at the camera and saying, ‘Truth and honor matter.’ That’s the foundation of his campaign. And his personal actions have proven definitively that he’s neither truthful nor honorable.”
The setting for the senator’s message amounted to a knife-twisting bit of campaign trolling from the Tillis camp. But the message itself has been ubiquitous across North Carolina in the weeks since it broke that Cunningham was having an affair with a California political strategist, the proof of which—embarrassingly PG text exchanges—were leaked and splashed across the state.
But the question now looming over this race, which could well decide which party controls the Senate majority next year, is whether any of that will matter. If public polling is any indication, it hasn’t mattered so far—and may not when the ballots are counted. Nearly every recent survey has shown Cunningham ahead, sometimes by a wide margin: A Friday poll from Marist College found the Democrat up by 10 points, 53 percent to 43 percent, while The New York Times found him up by 3 points, 46 percent to 43 percent.
Still, the scandal was a valuable break for Tillis. Beforehand, the first-term senator had been trailing in the polls, badly outraised, and was beginning to get written off by some D.C. Republicans. Now the GOP senator has been given a ready-made closing pitch and the chance to bask in media coverage garnered from campaign visits around the state—while Cunningham tests how low a profile a candidate can keep during the most frenetic part of an election.
The Democrat is almost entirely eschewing media interviews; local reporters, who have relied on tips from the public to try and track him down, joke that he’s happy to take questions if you happen to run into him in the Starbucks parking lot. Multiple requests from The Daily Beast to learn Cunningham’s campaign schedule in the final days of the campaign did not get a response. The only evidence of the candidate’s activity on the campaign trail Monday was a tweet showing him visiting with farmers and petting cows in an unspecified part of the state.
John Steward, a longtime Tillis ally who introduced the senator at his final event—a small gathering of close friends and supporters at a boat club just outside Charlotte—couldn’t help but note how active the senator’s wife, Susan, has been in stumping for her husband while he’s been away in Washington.
“I thought,” quipped Steward, “I wonder if Cal Cunningham’s wife is traveling the state on his behalf?”
Tillis’ allies are hopeful but clear-eyed that more will need to go the senator’s way in order for him to win—and that Cunningham’s strategy of laying low has not meaningfully hurt him.
“We’re in a very hyper-partisan time,” said Steward in an interview with The Daily Beast after the final Tillis event. “I mean, people are just to the extremes right now during this election cycle… that, you know, if that’s their guy that’s going to be their guy, I don’t care if he’s drowning puppies, they’re gonna vote for him.”
Grant Campbell, a former combat surgeon who spoke at the Lexington event to slam Cunningham’s conduct, echoed that assessment. “Is this an issue that will swing the results of the election?” asked Campbell. “I don’t know.”
That hasn’t stopped Tillis from mentioning the affair at nearly every turn or stopped his allies from spending millions on TV attack ads bringing it up and connecting it to a broader critique about Cunningham’s trustworthiness. On Monday morning, Tillis took the stage in Fayetteville with a highly valuable captive audience: several thousand Trump supporters waiting for the president to arrive for a rally.
After praising the president, the police, and his own supporters, Tillis told the crowd: “Now, I’ll talk a little bit about my opponent, then I’ll get off the stage… at the height of his campaign, he was having an adulterous affair with the wife of a wounded warrior. Is that truthful?” he asked the crowd. A smattering of “no’s” trickled in. “Is it honorable? Do you think you can believe anything he says?” More “no’s.”
It wasn’t a crowd in which Tillis is a folk hero, by any stretch. Several North Carolina Trump supporters interviewed by The Daily Beast indicated support for the GOP senator but also said they hadn’t been following his race very closely. And one voter, Carla Finnegan, voiced some of the distaste for the senator that persists within the GOP grassroots here.
Although he votes with Trump 93 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, Tillis has broken with the president during key moments—most memorably when the president tried to divert emergency funding to build the border wall, which the senator opposed in a Washington Post op-ed.
While he later relented and voted to not block Trump’s maneuver, voters like Finnegan still have a bitter taste in their mouth. “I hope he improves for the next term,” she said. “He needs to toe the Republican Party line.”
That dynamic is heartening to Democrats, who believe the senator could run behind Trump in the state, where the president and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are neck-and-neck in the polls. “Tillis consistently trails with Republicans, and it is one of the major factors why he is likely to lose this race,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina who has advised Cunningham.
But Democrats also believe that Tillis miscalculated by focusing so heavily on the affair story. In 2020—four years after watching the GOP rally around Trump when the Access Hollywood tapes broke—Cunningham’s backers believe that past standards for scandal have been obliterated. And they feel the stakes of this race for many voters, centered squarely on the COVID-19 pandemic and health care, are just too high to be affected by a sexting scandal.
Indeed, some liberals donated to Cunningham’s campaign because of the scandal, worried that the GOP would use it to tank his campaign—and with it, tank their chances at a Senate majority. If Cunningham wins his race, the party’s path to control of the chamber gets much wider and easier.
“I think it’s desperation,” said Jackson, of the Tillis camp’s strategies. “They’ve tried everything, and nothing’s stuck.” As for Cunningham’s improbable—and probably untenable—strategy to avoid the media and public, Jackson had a simple reply. “Polls indicate,” he said, “that his strategy is working.”
But for many in the crowd at Trump’s rally in Fayetteville, polls don’t amount to much. Natalie McCurdy, a stay-at-home mom from Raleigh who brought her two daughters to the event, had lots of praise for Tillis’ presence on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which just confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
“After four years ago,” she said, “I don’t take a lot of stock in the polls.”