North Carolina Senate race upended by sexting and coronavirus diagnosis

Democratic Senate challenger Cal Cunningham speaks during a debate Thursday in Raleigh, N.C.
Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham speaks during a televised debate with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis on Thursday in Raleigh, N.C.
(Associated Press)

North Carolina’s intensively competitive and expensive U.S. Senate race has been upended by personal and health disruptions that sent sharp tremors and uncertainty through the campaigns and an electorate already casting ballots.

Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham acknowledged and apologized for exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a woman who’s not his wife, but he said he won’t drop out of the race.

And just a few hours earlier Friday evening, his opponent, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. The first-term senator said he had no COVID-19 symptoms, but the news forced him to cancel in-person events, and several members of his campaign staff to head into quarantine, less than five weeks before election day.

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” Cunningham said in a statement about his texts. “The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do.”

But Cunningham, who is married with two children, added that he’s not dropping out of the Senate race: “I will continue to work to earn the opportunity to fight for the people of our state.”

Cunningham’s admission regarding the text messages, along with Tillis’ positive coronavirus test, could reshape the nation’s most expensive Senate campaign, which is considered key to determining the power balance in the Senate. Democrats need to gain four seats in November to take control of the chamber.

“It’s chaos — it’s really what I see it is,” David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said Saturday. More than 319,000 mail-in absentee ballots already have been accepted by county election boards.


McLennan and Gary Pearce, a longtime state Democratic consultant, said it’s unclear how much of an effect Cunningham’s text messages will have on the election.

“Most Democrats are really scared by it, but then you wonder has everything changed in the age of [President] Trump,” Pearce said, adding that the electorate’s increased polarization since 2016 could lead many Democrats to stick with Cunningham simply because the party’s victory is paramount.

Screengrabs of the messages show Cunningham told public relations strategist Arlene Guzman Todd, “Would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now,” to which she replies, “You’re so sweet. I would enjoy that.”

Another shows Guzman Todd tell Cunningham, “the only thing I want on my to do list is you,” to which Cunningham replies, “Sounds so hot and so fun!”

A spokeswoman for Cunningham’s campaign, Rachel Petri, confirmed the authenticity of the text messages Saturday.

It’s unclear when the messages were sent, but at one point Cunningham says he’s “Nervous about the next 100 days,” which could be a reference to the Senate election. One hundred days before the election would be July 26.

An email trying to reach Guzman Todd at the California-based communications firm that lists her as an employee wasn’t immediately returned Saturday morning. Public records show she lived in Raleigh briefly until 2015. Guzman Todd is also married, according to the report.

Cunningham, 47, is an attorney and Iraq war veteran who still serves as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He served one term in the North Carolina state Senate in the early 2000s and lost a Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate in 2010.

A few hours before Cunningham acknowledged the texts, Tillis announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus but said he had no symptoms. Cunningham tweeted that he wished Tillis a “quick recovery” and said he would get tested himself after the two men shared a debate stage Thursday night. It was the third and final scheduled debate in the race.

Tillis, 60, is the latest person to be diagnosed with the virus after attending the Supreme Court nomination ceremony in the White House Rose Garden for Amy Coney Barrett. Tillis’ Senate office didn’t mention where the first-term senator believes he caught the virus. Tillis was wearing a mask at the ceremony and has been among the most consistent Republicans to preach the use of face coverings to stem the virus’ spread.


Tillis’ campaign announced separately that it’s suspending in-person campaign events and temporarily closing his Charlotte campaign office. Campaign staff who have come into contact with Tillis will quarantine and receive virus tests, the campaign said in a news release.

The North Carolina Senate race is second only to the presidential campaign in terms of overall spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than $97 million already has been spent in the general election for or against Cunningham and Tillis, data from the center say — a reflection of the high stakes.

National Democrats who helped recruit Cunningham for the race stood with him. “We are confident that he will bring the same courage and determination to the Senate as he has while serving our country in uniform,” said Lauren Passalacqua with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Cunningham, who outraised Tillis during the first half of the year, announced this week that his campaign would report to federal election officials collecting $28.3 million in the third quarter — a record haul for any North Carolina candidate. Tillis’ campaign hasn’t announced his third quarter fundraising totals.