How the Safe Bet Lost in North Carolina

How the Safe Bet Lost in North Carolina

How the Safe Bet Lost in North Carolina

What doomed Cal Cunningham may have been the same thing that made him appealing in the first place: He never took a firm position on anything, even himself.


On October 9, Cal Cunningham, the Democratic candidate in North Carolina’s 2020 Senate race, gave an online press conference to reporters. It was a critical moment in his campaign: Over the past week, the generic but apparently wholesome Southern Democrat whose eventual victory over Republican incumbent Thom Tillis seemed all but preordained had become a man under siege. Cunningham was now primarily occupied with dealing with the fallout from a leaked series of explicitly sexual—but not exactly sexually explicit—text messages that he’d exchanged with a woman who was not his wife. Though labeled “sexts” by the media, the texts found Cunningham telling the woman, Arlene Guzman Todd, things like “You are historically sexy 😘,” and “Sounds so hot and fun!”

Since then, even more texts relating to the Cunningham–Guzman Todd affair have been leaked, accompanied by Guzman Todd’s confirmation to the Associated Press that she and Cunningham had engaged in physical intercourse at the candidate’s North Carolina home. On October 7, the Army Reserve, in which Cunningham is a lieutenant colonel, announced that it had opened an investigation into his conduct—adultery is technically illegal under military law.

Sitting in a white-walled office adorned by a North Carolina state flag, Cunningham was asked to discuss the allegations against him. He responded, “I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I’ve apologized to it, I’ve apologized for it, and I know that our campaign is about things that are bigger and more important than me.”

Another reporter asked if news of other affairs might break soon. Cunningham answered, “[Tillis] wants to talk about this rather than his failed record.”

Then another reporter asked the same question. “Let me be clear. I have taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life,” he said.

He received the question a third time, and responded, “Let me be very clear. I’m hearing from North Carolinians that have told me in no uncertain terms that they want their Senate candidate talking about the issues like those that we’re talking about today.”

And then a fourth time, to which he answered, “Once again, I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I’ve apologized for it. I’ve said what I’m gonna say about it. I’ve answered the question.”

It was a Clintonesque exercise in stringing together words that technically form coherent sentences yet manage to convey absolutely zero information. Unfortunately for Cunningham, it arguably made the situation worse.

A month later, after a protracted period of vote tallying in North Carolina, Tillis was reelected to the United States Senate, beating Cunningham by just under 95,000 votes.

North Carolina is an odd state politically, as the 2020 election results show. Its governor, the Democrat Roy Cooper, was reelected with 51.5 percent of the vote, while Trump carried the state with 49.9 percent. Tillis, a Republican seeking his second term, ended up winning with 48.7 percent, earning nearly 20,000 votes fewer than Biden got in a state that the president-elect lost. With Tillis officially declared the victor, Republicans will go into 2021 with at least 50 seats in the Senate, denying Democrats the opportunity for an outright majority in the chamber and pinning the party’s hopes on any sort of advantage in the chamber upon a pair of runoff elections in Georgia to be held on January 5.

In a normal election, 48.7 percent of the electorate does not a winner make. And despite the ultimate outcome, the narrow margin lends credence to a suspicion held by Democrats and the media leading up to the 2020 election that the first-term senator was vulnerable. “He was definitely beatable,” said Douglas Wilson, the former political director of the North Carolina Democratic Party and a consultant who worked as a political adviser to the Cunningham campaign. “Tillis had a record that people could see.”

To those who were paying attention, it was clear that since 2016 Tillis had never quite managed the art of navigating the political minefield that stretches before you when you belong to the same party as Donald Trump. As noted by The Intercept, Tillis had enraged the president’s base by announcing that he’d vote against a resolution to declare a state of emergency at the US/Mexico border, only to turn around and alienate the anti-Trump center by doing stuff like going on Twitter and asking people to sign a birthday card for the president’s adult son. He had a negative approval rating going into the election.

But Tillis’s opponent was Cunningham, a moderate Democrat whose pitch to voters was perhaps excessively personal. Cunningham telegraphed his intention to bring integrity and honesty to a state whose political identity has been defined by its Republican Party’s propensity for rigging elections, explicitly racist gerrymandering, and ratifying far-right cultural grievance into law. For much of summer 2020, the strategy seemed to be working. In July, polls from both Marist College and Morning Consult had Cunningham up by nine points over Tillis, on pace to cruise to a relatively easy victory.

Cunningham’s claim to decency, though, had begun to ring hollow after the sexts emerged. Rumors of some sort of scandal relating to Cunningham had been circulating among Raleigh’s political press before the news broke, multiple members of North Carolina’s media told me. With the über-ribald Donald Trump in the White House, the Senate majority potentially at stake, and Tillis bound to Trump by contact tracing—the senator had recently tested positive for Covid-19, most likely as a result of attending the infamous White House Rose Garden event in honor of Amy Coney Barrett—a few embarrassing texts might not have meant too much on their own. But as the story got worse, and Cunningham shrank away from the public eye, it began to seem as if his entire campaign had been based solely on the presumption that he wasn’t as bad a guy as Tillis. With that gone, he didn’t have much left. His website was long on platitudes but short on actual policy proposals. The lone exception seemed to be a focus on the environment, but in the press he mentioned such issues less than the fact that he wanted to bolster police funding, was opposed to Medicare for All, and, despite being unable to articulate how his campaign differed from Biden’s, that he was “confident there will be some places where Joe Biden and I diverge.”

And so, with Cunningham unwilling or unable to offer North Carolinians any good reason to vote for him beyond the fact that he was a Democrat, plenty of people didn’t.

I’m sure there are lots of people who wonder if Cal Cunningham was the right guy to make the heir apparent here,” said Travis Fain, the state house reporter for the Raleigh-area NBC affiliate WRAL. “That’s a fairly obvious thing to say after he lost and after the affair, but certainly, there were questions.”

Though Cunningham entered the 2020 primary with the unspoken blessing of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, he was not the institutional Democratic Party’s first choice to run for the seat. That would have been Jeff Jackson, a young state senator from Charlotte, N.C., who works as an attorney while serving as an Army Reservist on the side. While Jackson’s political stances are fairly standard for a North Carolina Democrat—he’s into expanding Medicaid, raising teacher pay, and establishing an independent commission to redraw the state’s electoral districts, which are heavily gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor—his natural charm and popularity on social media have made him a rising star of the state party.

According to audio from an off-record talk that Jackson gave to a journalism class at UNC-Charlotte that was later leaked to the National Review, Jackson was keen on running against Tillis and had gone so far as to meet with Schumer personally in order to discuss obtaining funding from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whose deep pockets can very easily determine the winner of a primary race before it’s even held. In the talk, Jackson, who declined to speak with me for this story, claimed that he told Schumer that he wanted to focus his time and energy in the campaign going around the state speaking with voters and learning about their political priorities. Schumer, he claimed, told him that the DSCC instead expected him “to spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money and then we’re going to spend 80 percent of it on negative ads about Tillis.”

It’s possible that Jackson was paraphrasing Schumer somewhat uncharitably. The minority leader may have been asking him to focus on “call time,” the practice of candidates directly calling potential donors and asking for money; traditionally, this is done in rooms where there are minimal distractions to the candidate (including windows). Even still, the conversation discouraged Jackson from running, leaving Senate Democrats in the early summer of 2019 without a preferred candidate in the primary.

Enter Cunningham, who announced his candidacy in June 2019. On paper, he was less qualified than the two candidates who’d already entered the race, Trevor Fuller, a third-term county commissioner in the state’s financial hub of Charlotte, and Erica Smith, a third-term state senator who represented the northeastern part of North Carolina. Fuller and Smith were both Black and progressive; Cunningham was white and moderate. Despite the optics of it all, Cunningham immediately became the front-runner.

“Part of the allure of a candidate like Cunningham is he seems so milquetoast and uncontroversial,” said a staffer for a prominent Republican state legislator, who asked to remain anonymous because they had not been authorized to speak with me. Cunningham had won elected office only once, back in 2000, when he served a single term as a state senator, but had built his profile by coming in a close second to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in the 2010 Democratic primary to run against Richard Burr for Senate. Professionally, he was a vice president and general counsel for the recycling company WasteZero, had a stake in a controversial Durham, N.C., housing development, and had earned a Gen. Douglas MacArthur Award while overseas as a military attorney in the Army Reserves.

As a candidate, Cunningham had two things going for him. One, he was about as close to a Jeff Jackson stand-in as the party could get: a former state senator who had worked as an attorney while serving as an Army Reservist on the side. And two, he had money—and judging by his ability to raise it, he seemed well-acquainted with Schumer’s proverbial windowless basement. It was like he’d been “grown in a petri dish to run for higher office,” said the Republican staffer.

Though he’d lost his 2010 Senate primary against Marshall, Cunningham had managed to amass roughly $1.4 million during that run, per his FEC filings, and prior to jumping into the 2020 race, he’d already begun building a war chest for a planned run for lieutenant governor that he’d begun in 2018. North Carolina campaign finance data indicates that Cunningham raised well over $300,000 that year, thanks largely to the generosity of his wife, his family, and himself. On June 12, five days before he officially announced the launch of his campaign, Cunningham brought in $52,400, almost all of it in increments of $2,800—the maximum campaign contribution from an individual allowed by the FEC. Two days later, Cunningham dropped $200,000 into the campaign’s coffers.

“Having the resources to reach voters where they are, I don’t think people have an appreciation of how valuable that is,” said Wilson, the Democratic strategist who worked with the Cunningham campaign. “When you have that, it will set you apart in a primary of multiple candidates.” Indeed, Cunningham easily won the March 3 Democratic primary, despite a last-minute blitz of attack ads against him from GOP-affiliated dark-money groups in an attempt to tip the scales in favor of Smith. (Smith denounced the ads.)

As the coronavirus pandemic began to spread throughout the nation, to the indifference and outright profiteering of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, Cunningham started shooting up in the polls. By August, FiveThirtyEight projected that he had a 68 percent chance of ousting Tillis from his seat. In September, Politico reported that Cunningham had “doubled Tillis’s fundraising this year” and, despite the fact that Tillis was seen as more moderate (or at least, more normal) than Trump, suggested that Cunningham was poised to pick up the same conservative voters that Biden was chasing with his presidential campaign. Regardless of the separation between Tillis and Trump politically, almost every available indicator suggested that Biden and Cunningham, barring some unforeseen disaster, would have the advantage in North Carolina come November.

That unforeseen disaster came in the form of those leaked text messages, which were published on October 1 by National File, a conservative news outlet founded in 2019 whose editor in chief, Tom Pappert, has guest-hosted for InfoWars, and which counts among its contributors alumni of Breitbart and InfoWars, as well as Ann Coulter’s niece.

“I’m always amazed with political candidates,” said Travis Fain of WRAL, whose colleague Laura Leslie had participated in Cunningham’s disastrous press conference. “It seems like the American people are willing to engage in a pretty extreme amount of forgiveness. But if you don’t make it clear what you’re apologizing for, at least with the media, the apology isn’t going to work.”

“The very reasonable assumption when someone won’t answer a question is that it’s bad enough that they’d rather not answer it,” Fain continued. “Cunningham was extremely limited in how he could make his arguments in the last month, because he didn’t want to answer questions from the press.” Instead, he assumed a position of complete radio silence, withdrawing from the campaign trail, save for a last-minute appearance in Charlotte with the rapper Common. (The rapper’s publicist did not return my requests for comment.)

As a whole, Democrats had taken a step back from in-person campaigning because of the coronavirus, leaving Cunningham without volunteers or staffers in the field to knock on doors and send the implicit message that, despite it all, real people were sticking behind Cunningham, and voters should too. Meanwhile, Tillis went on an all-out blitz during the final weeks of the campaign, appearing at rallies throughout the state with Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Ted Cruz, right-wing social media personalities Diamond and Silk, and Trump himself. “He worked hard that last month of the campaign,” Fain told me. “I assume [the Tillis team] saw that Cunningham had left a vacuum. They were bound to fill it.”

In an alternate universe, it’s possible that Cunningham could have been as transparent as possible with North Carolina’s voters, owned his personal failings, continued to run with his head held high, and maybe even won. After all, in 2009, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford went missing for six days, and, after his staff’s initial excuse that he was off on a hiking trip fell flat on its face, it was revealed that he had traveled to South America for an extramarital rendezvous with an Argentinian woman. Sanford then gave a tearful interview to the Associated Press in which he detailed the tryst in arguably excruciating detail, declaring that it had been “a love story…a forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.” Four years later, he was elected to Congress.

“There’s power in telling and reclaiming your story,” said Jenna Wadsworth, the 2020 Democratic candidate for the position of North Carolina commissioner of agriculture, who ran on a platform of marijuana legalization, fighting climate change, and achieving justice for immigrant farm workers. Despite her losing the race, Wadsworth’s presence on the ballot was the rare bright spot for the progressive left this year. She won her primary over Walter Smith, the perennial challenger to longtime Republican incumbent Steve Troxler, and ultimately earned more votes than Smith ever had through proposing a radical reinvention of what’s often looked at as a staid, borderline-nonpartisan office. (Wadsworth, who’s in her early 30s and is a lifelong farmer, told me a friend once jokingly called her “the South’s AOC, but on a tractor.”)

Regardless of her ideological differences with Cunningham, Wadsworth found herself being lumped in with him by a right-wing media apparatus eager to imply wide-scale moral degradation on the part of the North Carolina Democratic party. Her offense? Posting a video of herself on TikTok making fun of Donald Trump for getting Covid-19. The clip made its way to Gateway Pundit, as well as Tillis’s own Twitter feed, where, the day after Cunningham’s initial texts leaked, he referred to the video as “beyond disgusting” without addressing his opponent’s scandal in his feed whatsoever. (Wadsworth has since deleted the TikTok post, as well as the tweet where she reposted the video.)

Both the Fox News website and state-level conservative radio discussed Wadsworth’s TikTok and Cunningham’s sexts as two parts of a greater whole, and quickly, the online scrutiny morphed into real-life threats to Wadsworth’s physical safety. Even though things got so dire that she couldn’t sleep at her own home for three weeks and was accompanied by an escort in public, she kept campaigning. “I was authentic. I was unapologetically who I am,” she told me. She pointed to a third-quarter spending blitz by Troxler of $459,722—over $300,000 more than he’d spent during the third quarter of his 2016 campaign—as proof that even with the TikTok imbroglio, she posed a serious threat to her opponent’s incumbency.

With early voting already underway, it would have been logistically difficult, and perhaps electorally disastrous, for Cunningham to drop out of the race and be replaced by an untarnished Democratic candidate. So Cunningham, whose campaign did not return my requests for comment, kept his head down, ducked questions from reporters, and stayed out of the public eye. Presumably, he and the North Carolina Democratic Party hoped that the matter would blow over and he’d eke out a win thanks to the popularity of Governor Cooper and a projected Biden victory.

Instead, Cunningham became a case study in what happens when the stakes are high and a candidate running on personal character and a vague platform loses their primary asset: their reputation. Cunningham wound up with a mere 47 percent of the vote, with 4.37 percent choosing to vote third party—about three times more votes than third-party candidates received in either the presidential or gubernatorial race. Whether that was a result of Cunningham’s infidelity, Donald Trump’s intense focus on North Carolina in the month of October, or the raw personal magnetism of the Libertarian candidate, Shannon W. Bray, we may never know. But ultimately, what doomed Cunningham may very well be the same thing that made him an attractive candidate in the first place: He never took a firm position on anything, even himself.

In all likelihood, Wadsworth will have a future in Democratic politics if she chooses to. This is the Trump era, where it’s been proven that if you make enough big, wildly unrealistic bets at enough tables, the odds that one of them will pay off and you’ll just barely squeak by are actually pretty good. Meanwhile, that option may not be available to Cunningham, who officially conceded to Tillis on November 10. In an early-December call with donors, Chuck Schumer singled out Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the fact that Cunningham “couldn’t keep his zipper up” as the two reasons the Democrats lost the Senate. But what if it wasn’t just Cunningham’s zipper that did him in—what if it was the whole package? As one commenter on Cunningham’s Facebook post announcing the candidate’s concession put it, “You’ve jeopardized our state’s AND country’s democracy out of selfishness.… Next time, I hope someone who is truly progressive and a decent person wins the nomination.”

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