Cunningham keeps low in NC Senate race marked by his affair

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FILE - In this Oct. 1, 2020, file photo, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham talks during during a televised debate with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., in Raleigh, N.C. Cunningham inched back into the public sphere on Wednesday, Oct. 7, a day after The Associated Press reported the he had an intimate encounter this summer with a public relations consultant. Within hours of the military disclosing that it is investigating Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, he rejected the idea that the race with Tillis had turned into a referendum on his character, even while expressing remorse for extramarital activity. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham is bypassing uncomfortable questions about his extramarital activities in the final days of his closely contested race with GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.

Whether his strategy alters the outcome of what’s now the most expensive U.S. Senate race in history will depend on whether swing voters are set on removing Tillis — and potentially ending GOP control of the chamber — even if it means a replacement facing a sex scandal.

“Clearly Cunningham made a self-inflicted wound, but the question is what are voters really going to be focused on down the stretch?” asked Thomas Mills, a longtime Democratic consultant not involved in the race.

Cunningham acknowledged three weeks ago that he exchanged sexually suggestive texts with a woman who is not his wife. A few days later, The Associated Press reported additional texts and interviews confirming they had an intimate encounter as recent as July — while Cunningham was deep in the hard-fought campaign.

Since then, Cunningham has largely stuck to tightly controlled virtual calls with interest groups that back him and small, unannounced in-person appearances so reporters can't ask questions. During the one online news conference he held, the Raleigh attorney and U.S. Army Reserve officer refused to directly answer whether he had had other affairs.

“I’ve taken responsibility for the hurt that I’ve caused in my personal life. I’ve apologized for it,” Cunningham told reporters on Oct. 9. “I’ve said what I’m going to say about it.”

Tillis and Republican allies are jumping on Cunningham’s reticence, running ads that question his trustworthiness in contrast with his TV-commercial persona as an Army officer who rooted out corrupt military contractors in Iraq. Some feature veterans. Tillis' campaign also says he's given more than two dozen interviews since Cunningham's lone news conference.

Cunningham “has not been truthful and he has not been honorable,” Tillis said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And then that raises a question about whether or not you can believe anything he said up to this point in terms of what he will and will not do if he gets elected to the Senate.”