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Democrat’s personal scandal roils North Carolina Senate race

Published: Oct. 3, 2020 at 1:14 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2020 at 8:14 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A race in North Carolina critical to control of the U.S. Senate has been thrown into turmoil over allegations of personal misconduct by Democrat Cal Cunningham, a married man who had an extramarital relationship with a consultant.

Previously undisclosed text messages obtained by The Associated Press and additional interviews show that the relationship extended beyond suggestive texts to an intimate encounter as recently as July.

Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and the contest between Cunningham and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has been among the most watched in the country, with polls showing a tight race and both parties investing heavily in the outcome.

Cunningham’s personal indiscretion offers a fresh test of whether voters will punish candidates for their private, consensual activity, and the answer they deliver could determine which party wields power in the Senate. The chamber has been a bulwark for Republicans under President Donald Trump, with Democrats in control of the House.

An Army Reserve lieutenant colonel with a wholesome appeal, Cunningham was widely viewed as the kind of recruit Democrats needed to make inroads in conservative-leaning Southern states like North Carolina.

Yet the text messages and interviews offer a glimpse that is at odds with the image of a devoted family man. A week ago, a conservative website, NationalFile.com, published text messages between Cunningham and Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist from California, that suggested a personal relationship.

The newly obtained texts provide both a more specific timeline about their relationship, which shows it was recent, as well as details that describe intimate encounters — not simply a digital exchange.

The text messages were not obtained from Guzman Todd. But the AP contacted her to confirm their authenticity. In a series of interviews late Monday as well as in the text messages, Guzman Todd described two in-person encounters with Cunningham, one in March in Los Angeles that she said did not include intimate contact and a second in July in North Carolina, where she said they were intimate.

In the text messages to her friend, Guzman Todd told her she was intimate with Cunningham in his home, which she later characterized as “weird.”

In another exchange, Guzman Todd indicated that she was frustrated by the limited attention that he showed her.

“I’m just going to send to his opponent his naked photos,” Guzman Todd wrote. “That will teach him.”

“You don’t deserve me Cal,” she said in a separate text message. She added in another, “He knows (that I) can tank his campaign.”

In a statement, Guzman Todd apologized for the “pain and embarrassment, and disrespect I’ve caused to my immediate family, loved ones, and everyone affected by this situation.”

“A few months back, I displayed a lapse in judgment by engaging in a relationship with Cal Cunningham during a period of marital separation,” Guzman Todd said. “The relationship spanned several months and consisted primarily of a series of text exchanges and an in-person encounter.” She did not elaborate, but her text messages described the intimacy.

Cunningham’s campaign declined to comment on the newly disclosed texts or on Guzman’s statement.

The campaign instead pointed to a statement issued on Friday and confirmed the authenticity of those texts at the time.

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry. The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family’s privacy be respected in this personal matter,” Cunningham, who has two teenage children and has been married for two decades, said at the time.

Tillis meanwhile is self-isolating at his home, and his Charlotte campaign office is closed for the rest of the week after testing positive for COVID-19. Cunningham pulled out of a previously planned online forum on Monday with the Libertarian candidate in the race. His campaign gave no reason for his decision.

Despite the developments, some state Democrats sought to keep supporting Cunningham for the seat, saying he’s still right on the issues important to the party faithful and the country.

“Cunningham had a critical lapse in judgement and morality. My prayers go out to his family as they work through healing,” tweeted North Carolina state Sen. Erica Smith, who lost to Cunningham in the March Democratic primary. “I ask our supporters to unite around our platform and stand with Cal for NC.”

But Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said Trump’s history isn’t already baked into how people feel about Cunningham. Cooper said how much the revelations will damage Cunningham’s campaign depends on whether additional details surfaced beyond the texts.

“It was a character-first campaign, and it was as much about who Cal Cunningham is than what Cal Cunningham stands for — and that’s a harder sell today than it was last week,” Cooper said Tuesday.

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The Democratic challenger in North Carolina’s closely contested U.S. Senate campaign has acknowledged exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a woman who’s not his wife, but he said he will not drop out of the race.

Cal Cunningham apologized late Friday for the text message exchanges in which he tells the woman he wants to kiss her and she says she wants to spend the night with him. The messages were first reported by the website NationalFile.com.

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

But Cunningham, who is married with two teenage 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 our state.”

Cunningham’s admission regarding the text messages, along with his opponent U.S. Senate Thom Tillis announcing Friday night he has tested positive for COVID-19, 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 ensure control of the chamber.

“It’s chaos — it’s really what I see it is,” David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, said Saturday. More than 319,000 completed mail-in absentee ballots already have been accepted by county election boards and will be counted. Early in-person voting begins Oct. 15.

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 on Saturday the authenticity of the text messages.

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, as well as voice messages left with what public records indicate are her phone numbers, weren’t immediately returned Saturday. Public records show she lived in Raleigh briefly until 2015. Guzman Todd is married to someone who has served in the U.S. Army, according to the NationalFile.com 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 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 tested positive for COVID-19 but said he has 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 on Sept. 26. The first-term senator didn’t say in his statement where he believes he caught the virus but did say he had tested negative for the virus on the same day as the White House event. Tillis was wearing a mask at the ceremony and has been among the most consistent state Republicans to preach the use of face coverings to stem the virus’s spread. In late August, Tillis apologized for listening maskless to President Donald Trump giving his Republican nomination acceptance speech outdoors at the White House, saying he “fell short of my own standard.”

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.

Tillis' campaign didn’t immediately respond to an email Saturday seeking comment on Cunningham. A national GOP group working for Tillis' re-election said Cunningham must disclose more so voters can decide his fitness for office. “These are very troubling allegations and Cal needs to be fully transparent with the voters of North Carolina,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Jesse Hunt said Saturday.

Copyright 2020 WITN. All rights reserved.

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