RALEIGH, N.C. — It was a typical October surprise — Cal Cunningham, the Democratic Senate nominee in North Carolina, was forced to admit to having had an extramarital relationship after news reports surfaced with text messages he sent to the woman as recently as July.
It was the kind of bombshell that gave Republicans hope that the incumbent, Thom Tillis, could recover the kind of support he has consistently lost in the polls, giving them a shot at holding onto a seat in a battleground state that could be instrumental in their keeping control of the Senate.
Cunningham has said he is “deeply sorry” for the episode but insists it is a personal matter and he has refused to answer questions about it. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is keeping his distance, hosting a drive-in rally in Durham on Sunday that Cunningham didn’t attend.
But this October, the surprise appears to be having little impact on the race. Cunningham continues to lead, but Tillis’ campaign argues that the race has tightened slightly since the scandal broke.
Democratic and independent voters in the Raleigh-Durham area interviewed by NBC News in recent days expressed disappointment in Cunningham but said they intended to vote for him anyway.
“I had a second thought about putting his sign in our yard when all the news broke," Anna Kelly, a Democrat from Raleigh,said of Cunningham, "but at the end of the day, Tillis has let me down over and over again. So Cunningham is my best choice."
Ted Buckner, a Democrat from Cary, N.C., said he will still vote for Cunningham. "I think basically based on Tom Tillis’ voting record we thought we were in better shape with somebody who has his own personal problems with his married life," Buckner told NBC News.
Cunningham was considered a star recruit. A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve who served two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and a former state senator, he was a moderate Democrat in a swing state whom Democrats thought could attract moderate voters.
But now the Army Reserve has opened an investigation into Cunningham's extramarital relationship because the woman's husband is a veteran and adultery violates the U.S. Army’s Code of Military Justice.
Tillis has his own challenges. He is less popular than President Donald Trump in North Carolina, disappointing the Republican base when he disagrees with the president but angering moderate voters when he ties himself too closely to the president.
And sometimes, he’s tried to have it both ways.
For instance, in February 2019, he wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post opposing the president for declaring a national emergency to build the border wall. He immediately started to walk back his op-ed and ultimately voted to support the declaration less than a month later.
He faced an October surprise of his own, too, when he tested positive for Covid-19 after attending a White House event for Trump's pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and was shown in photos not wearing a mask.
And recent polls indicate that the dynamics of the race have not upended the race since the news of Cunningham's affair broke in early October, with Cunningham maintaining a slight a lead.
Sen. Tillis’ pollster, Glen Bolger, says that dynamics of the race have changed. In a tweet thread last week, Bolger wrote that “the more voters learn about this, the more the race shifts back to Tillis.”
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that the race is within the margin of error, with Cunningham leading by two points.
Jay Copan, a retired gas company executive from Raleigh and a lifelong Republican who turned against Trump because of his handling of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, said he is going to reluctantly vote for Cunningham even though he’s been disappointed with him, and with Tillis as well, for following "the lead of President Trump on virtually everything.”
“But at the end of the day, I really feel strongly that we've got to put an end to Trumpism," Copan said. "And for that reason, I really feel that I'm probably going to vote for Cal Cunningham.”
Democratic political strategist Morgan Jackson, who is working with the Cunningham campaign, said Cunningham maintains his lead because “this election has never been about Cal; it’s always been about Thom Tillis.”
“Voters are just very clear that their priorities are health care. It’s not about the candidate, it’s about health care,” he said.
This Senate race is the most expensive in the country, with more than $230 million being spent on campaign ads, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks ad purchases.
And some voters say Republicans can’t point fingers at character when they stand by a president who has been accused of sexual assault and having affairs.
“Donald Trump did a lot more,” Gladys Walker, of Raleigh, said.
Garland Tucker, a Raleigh-based retired businessman who briefly challenged Tillis in the primary before dropping out, told NBC News that minds still could be changed.
“It doesn’t seem to have been decisive as I would have thought. It may yet,” said Tucker, who is supporting Tillis in the general election. He added that the Cunningham scandal may yet have an impact because “it takes a while for that news to get out” and “sink in.”
And there is one bright spot for Tillis: Fifteen percent of voters in the New York Times/ Sienna College poll were still undecided in the race.