Less than two weeks ago, Democrat Cal Cunningham was the front-runner in the Senate race in North Carolina. A former state senator, a current lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, and an elder in the Presbyterian Church, the Democrat had been running a belligerently bland campaign against first-term Republican incumbent Thom Tillis. Cunningham filled the airwaves with gauzy television ads and consistently led in polls.
Then his sexts were leaked to a right-wing website.
Not only had Cunningham been conducting an extramarital affair during his campaign, but he had also chronicled it. The contents of the messages were remarkable in at least one sense though: He had somehow managed to make an illicit extramarital affair in the context of high-profile political race boring.
In the exchanges with his paramour, Arlene Guzman Todd, a married California woman, Cunningham wrote that she was “historically sexy.” When Guzman Todd messaged him, “When can I see you? I want to kiss you,” his response was, “And I kiss back. A lot.”
Guzman Todd said there was “an intimate encounter” in July that she described as “weird” to the Associated Press. Cunningham has since played coy about whether this was the only time he strayed from his marriage. He issued a broad apology, saying in his first public appearance after the sexts were published: “I am deeply sorry for the hurt that I have caused in my personal life and I also apologize to all of you.”
Cunningham’s philandering, though, may have consequences that are historic and not just historically unsexy. The race is a must-win for Democrats seeking to take back the Senate. They need a net gain of four seats for a majority and North Carolina had long been pegged as the fourth-most likely Republican-held seat to flip.
So far, however, while voters clearly think less of Cunningham as a person, it doesn’t seem to have necessarily cost Democrats the race.
In a survey conducted by the New York Times and Siena College after the sexts leaked, Cunningham had a four-point lead — almost unchanged from their last poll in September before the scandal. However, unsurprisingly, voters now viewed Cunningham in a far less favorable manner. In September, 46 percent of voters saw him either very or somewhat favorably while only 29 percent of voters had a very or somewhat unfavorable view of him. Those margins have flipped: Only 40 percent of voters now have a favorable view of him and 42 percent have an unfavorable view.
In other words, voters think he is a jerk, but they’ll vote for him anyway.
Cunningham has been aided by a lackluster campaign run by Tillis, who is not terribly well liked either. While a mere 27 percent of voters found Cunningham “honest and trustworthy” in the Times–Siena poll, Tillis didn’t do much better. Only 30 percent found him honest and trustworthy — and he hadn’t had an adultery scandal plastered on the front page of every paper in the state.
This seems to validate the verdict of one Democratic strategist in the state, who told Intelligencer, “I think where this ends up, [voters decide] ‘They are both assholes, so what the hell?’” and back Cunningham.
This might represent a massive change in political culture. “Twenty years ago, this would have been close to catastrophic,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist. “The world has changed.”
Once, confessing to adultery could severely damage if not totally torpedo a politician’s career. Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations ended after allegations of infidelity were aired in 1987, and Bob Livingston, who was poised to become Newt Gingrich’s successor as Speaker of the House, resigned from Congress in 1998 after it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair during the GOP-led impeachment of Bill Clinton for allegedly lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
In recent years, sex scandals have invariably been more unusual. When they end political careers, they often either involve allegations of professional or criminal misconduct or grossly lurid details or sometimes both, such as former congresswoman Katie Hill, who was accused of conducting an affair with a staff member on Capitol Hill and had nude pictures leaked of her as part of “a throuple” with her then-husband and female campaign staffer. (Hill has denied the affair with the staffer.)
A key factor in this changing world is, of course, Donald Trump. He was elected despite Americans knowing that he was a serial adulterer who actively sought tabloid coverage of his personal life. He even infamously boasted about sexually assaulting women in the Access Hollywood tape. Since taking office, the revelations that he had paid hush money to two women to cover up affairs have led to no discernible consequences whatsoever for Trump with his base of white Evangelical Christian voters.
“I’ve certainly heard from a number of people who said if Republicans will vote for Trump then we can’t risk the election over these stupid text messages,” said Graig Meyer, a Democratic state representative from North Carolina. Meyer added that “folks who don’t like his behavior are still likely going to vote for him and probably that has a lot to do with how close everyone knows the Senate is … and has been highlighted by the Supreme Court confirmation hearings.”
But Republicans still saw the scandal exposing new weaknesses for Cunningham. One national Republican strategist noted that while voters are “slightly desensitized on sex scandals,” Cunningham campaigned on issues of integrity and character. It set the tables for attacks on hypocrisy and trust and reinforced the “You don’t know the real Cal” narrative that Republicans had been pushing, which had been as much about his policy views as his peccadilloes. Republicans have not shied away from making his affair a campaign issue and have run ads accusing his campaign of being “one big lie.”
Cunningham’s service in the military has also been transformed into a Republican attack, as the affair has prompted a military investigation into his conduct. (Adultery is an offense under the Uniform Military Code of Justice.)
Michael Steel, a veteran Republican strategist and native of the Tar Heel State, told Intelligencer, “I think it matters in the sense that Democrats were working very hard to make Cunningham seem sort of a boring decent Roy Cooper–style figure [the state’s very popular Democratic governor] and this makes him really creepy.” Steel also noted that the affair reflected particularly badly on Cunningham because it happened in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. “There’s a judgment issue,” he said. “Not just the sin of adultery but some clearly questionable judgment from a political and public-health perspective.”
It’s still possible this scandal could take another turn. There could be other women, there could be pictures, or the revelation of details that appall voters. But, in the era of Trump, violating the Seventh Commandment is no longer an automatic career-killer. Voters may hate the sin, but they’ll cast their ballots for the sinner.