Editorial: Cunningham's behavior - From great hope to weak link

Posted November 10, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST

CBC Editorial: Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020; Editorial #8607
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham’s inappropriate “sexting” and physical relationship with a woman who was not his wife in the midst of the campaign probably cost a victory over incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

How do we know this? The voters told us so when they cast their ballots. It was, in the final weeks of the campaign, that Cunningham’s behavior was revealed and Republicans launched a massive effort to get voters to focus on it.

Here’s what voters said: Tillis has, so far, received 2.64 million votes and Cunningham 2.55 million. Tillis holds a 95,700-vote lead. More than 235,000 voters cast ballots for third party candidates.

Why is that number of votes for third-party candidates relevant? Aren’t there third-party candidates in other statewide races?

There are. But in those races – such as president and governor – the votes for those other-party candidates was around 79,300 – just a third – of those in the Senate race. It doesn’t take a soothsayer to conclude that there were thousands of voters who didn’t want to vote for Tillis or for Cunningham. They looked elsewhere and it came at Cunningham’s cost.

This campaign was THE MOST EXPENSIVE Senate race in history – more than $233 million on advertising alone. Super PACS and so-called “dark money” groups that don’t disclose donors, spent more than $141 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It was Cunningham who based his campaign on a candidate’s character and integrity. It was, it seemed, a key message. Tillis’ flip-flops, support of Trump at the cost of military projects in North Carolina, failure to provide much-needed additional COVID-19 pandemic relief, had him trailing badly in pre-election polls. A seven-point lead in mid-September narrowed to three points a week before the election. Among independent voters, Cunningham’s backing stagnated at the same 45% support level he had in mid-September while Tillis' support increased from 29% in mid-September to 40% a week before Election Day.

The character issue Cunningham had so relied upon took hold, only it provided momentum to Tillis. In the closing days of the campaign, Cunningham was out of sight and unheard from – other than his paid advertising.

By contrast, Tillis was open and available – making appearances with voters, conducting interviews with news organizations and issuing a wave of anti-Cunningham television ads and direct-mail appeals.

While there may be enough votes that remain uncounted in the state to shift the status of the race, Cunningham has a very steep deficit to conquer.

Cunningham was, through much of the election, a cornerstone of Democrats hope to wrest control of U.S. Senate from the Republicans. As the final votes are being counted in North Carolina and Georgia, it appears likely that Cunningham is the weak link in that quest.

Through mid-October Cunningham reported raising more than $46.8 million and spending $45.9 million.

His behavior let down those wanted a change in the Senate and short-changed his donors. Who’d blame them for demanding their money back.

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