Despite scandal, Cunningham maintains small lead in Senate race; supporters say policy positions more important

Published 12:10 am Sunday, October 18, 2020

By Natalie Anderson

SALISBURY — Despite a scandal surrounding sexual impropriety, locals say Democrat Cal Cunningham’s continued favorability in the polls may indicate that the issue is not the penalty it might have been years ago.

Cunningham is challenging U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., in the 2020 election. In early October, news broke that Cunningham had sent sexually suggestive messages a woman who wasn’t his wife — to which he admitted. The Associated Press reported a few days later that there was an intimate encounter between Cunningham and a woman who wasn’t his wife as recently as July.

But polls continue to show Cunningham maintains an advantage in the Senate election. FiveThirtyEight, a data and analytics website owned by ABC News, shows Cunningham with a 66 out of 100 chance of winning the election in its deluxe version of the model, which uses expert ratings, polling, fundraising and past voting patters. The deluxe version simulates the election 40,000 different times to see who wins most often.

Meanwhile, a Sienna College/The New York Times Upshot national poll, which has an A+ rating, shows Cunningham ahead by four points among likely voters. A more recent Emerson College poll, which has an A- reliability rating, has Cunningham ahead by just one point.

Gary Freeze, a retired Catawba College history professor, said such scandals among American politicians date as far back as founding father Alexander Hamilton. It’s more rare to find a notable election without a scandal involving a candidate’s character flaws, Freeze said.

“The inevitability of human behavior always seems to come out in American politics,” he said.

These issues aren’t, historically, linked to one party more than the other as they have often crossed regional and ideological lines. But with Cunningham, the added layer of new technology raises questions about whether Americans care about what people do on their phones and within their private domains, Freeze said.

He said this election may be indicative of what voters expect in the private lives of political leaders.

Michael Bitzer, politics professor and department chair at Catawba College, said the consistency of polling for this race has been “remarkable.” While there might have been an expectation that this the sexual impropriety scandal was going to cause a shift in the race, it hasn’t panned out that way. And as a million North Carolinians have cast a ballot for the 2020 election in North Carolina so far, many people’s minds are already made up. Some voted before the news of the scandal broke, he said.

Bitzer said there’s a definite generational dynamic, particularly among voters under the age of 40 who don’t care as much as what people do in their private lives. Additionally, it’s likely voters don’t care as much when such a scandal isn’t carried out by taxpayer dollars.

But while voters may overlook such character flaws, the military is viewed with high regard, especially in North Carolina, so it’s also likely veterans won’t look favorably on his character flaws, Bitzer said.

Cunningham is a U.S. Army Reserves lieutenant colonel who served three active duty combat tours following 9/11.

Nonetheless, if voters are offended by this scandal, it’s likely they didn’t plan on voting for him anyway, Bitzer said.

Geoffrey Hoy, Rowan County Democratic Party chair, said the election of President Donald Trump put such scandals “on the back burner.”

But it’s disappointing, he said, to hear of mistakes that people cause themselves that hurt their families and themselves. Cunningham’s intentions and goals to serve seem to outweigh the disappointment, Hoy said.

“What is at stake is so much greater than judgement of personal errors,” he said. “But what are the decisions these people have made for good or ill for the sake of the country? For the sake of many others in need.”

Hoy referred to former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reported affair with his wife Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer, and said that Americans judge Roosevelt, and other leaders, for their leadership decisions when they reflect on their time in office.

Hoy said he hopes the scandal makes Cunningham more compassionate because, as Hoy said, he seems remorseful about the fact that he’s betrayed his trust among voters.

Veleria Levy, the 13th District Chair for the Democratic Party, said she’s personal friends with Cunningham and his wife, Elizabeth, because she’s worked in the Democratic Party for so long.

“You start to know people and who they are. I was deeply disappointed,” she said. “I also understand that people are human. And although things may look a certain way on the outside, we don’t know what goes on in people’s personal lives.”

Levy said she doesn’t condone what happened, but hopes he and his family, which includes two children, handle the issue as needed.

Levy said she doesn’t like how the Republican Party has exploited this issue and rejected the request for privacy.

“As a woman, I feel that the Republican Party constantly lives to delve into your private life,” Levy said. “They constantly have something to say about women and our reproductive rights. All of these are personal matters that should be handled personally.”

Levy said she would hate to think voters don’t care about such a disappointing scandal because people inherently care about other people. But she said young voters understand the world today and that people have to make their own personal choices, which can range from issues of abortion, birth control and who someone decides to love or marry.

She emphasized the importance of this race as whoever elected will serve a six-year term.

“You have to vote for people who support you,” she said.

Nonetheless, voters will have the final say for this race. Early voting continues in North Carolina until Oct. 31. Election Day is Nov. 3.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

About Natalie Anderson

Natalie Anderson covers the city of Salisbury, politics and more for the Salisbury Post. She joined the staff in January 2020 after graduating from Louisiana State University, where she was editor of The Reveille newspaper. Email her at or call her at 704-797-4246.

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