The Epic 3 Hours That Threw The North Carolina Senate Race Into Total Disarray

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October 5, 2020 12:29 p.m.

Last Friday night, breaking news was being churned out so fast that revelations from an hour prior quickly went stale. 

Bam! President Donald Trump was being helicoptered to the hospital out of an “abundance of caution” after announcing his positive COVID-19 test. Wham! One member after another of his inner orbit announced their own positive tests. And all the while, political observers were feverishly trying to deduce the seriousness of Trump’s illness from the drug cocktails he was prescribed, and to connect the dots in an infection timeline the White House was reluctant to elucidate. 

The glut of national news overshadowed the spectacular implosion of the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina, where the Republican incumbent tested positive for COVID-19 and the Democratic nominee was brought low by the revelation of a sexting scandal that had unfolded during the course of the campaign. 

A few minutes before 8:30 p.m. ET, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) announced that he, like many who attended the Rose Garden ceremony announcing Trump’s Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, had tested positive for COVID-19. 

The diagnosis had immediate ramifications, both on the federal and state level. Tillis sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first stop for Barrett’s confirmation. His illness plus that of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who also sits on the committee, could throw the confirmation timeline into flux. 

It could also hobble Tillis’ last-ditch effort to turn around his flailing campaign. After months of trailing Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in the polls, Tillis hoped to pivot to his role in getting Barrett on the bench, erasing any doubt of his loyalty to Trump. His votes to protect former special counsel Robert Mueller and initially against using Pentagon money for the border wall had left some doubt in MAGA minds.

On top of all that, in an echo of the presidential situation, Tillis had attended a debate with Cunningham on Thursday night, raising concerns that Cunningham too could have been exposed.

For a few hours, it seemed like the death knell for a Tillis campaign already on life support. He had to temporarily close his Charlotte office and cancel in-person campaigning. The White House unveiling of Barrett, which was supposed to mark Tillis’ pivot to being instrumental in getting a conservative on the Supreme Court, turned out to be a potential super-spreader event. Tillis’ name became another bullet point on a list of people infected at the poster ceremony for Republican irresponsibility.  

But this was Friday night — nothing stayed certain for that long. 

Three hours after Tillis announced his positive test, under cover of the most frantic news night in four years of frantic news nights, Cunningham’s campaign confirmed to the Raleigh News & Observer that the candidate exchanged sexual texts with a woman who was not his wife. 

The existence of the texts was first reported Thursday by a site called NationalFile.com, staffed by alumni of outlets like Breitbart and the Daily Caller. The story identified the woman as Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist. 

The report included screenshots, in which the two discussed their desire to get away together. 

“Would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now,” Cunningham said in one text, calling Todd “historically sexy” in another.

“Get away for a night soon,” Todd requests in one exchange, adding: “I have flexibility this month — done with school, training, big RFPs, etc. So the only thing I want on my to do list is you.”

“Pick a day, city, make up an excuse for the fam, ditch a staffer, starch your white shirt, and be ready to kiss a lot,” she said.

Screenshots of texts between Cunningham and Todd. Courtesy News & Observer.

Cunningham is married and has two teenage children. 

He confirmed the veracity of the texts to the News & Observer with a statement. 

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” he said. “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.” 

He added that he would continue to “fight for the people of our state,” making it clear that he did not intend to end his run.

It’s too early to know how and if this one-two punch October surprise will upset the race. Absentee ballots have been sent out to North Carolinians since the beginning of September. As of Thursday, nearly 305,000 ballots had already been cast, according to the state Board of Elections.

The seat is crucial to both parties’ tooth-and-nail attempts to scrape out a majority in the Senate. It’s become one of the most expensive races of the cycle.

“No one believes we can keep a Senate majority unless we win North Carolina,” Tillis said two weeks ago.

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