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Will Tillis' challenger decide control of the Senate?

The battle for control of the Senate next year has gotten a lot tighter than I would have projected as recently as the beginning of summer. Looking at the current state of play, The Democrats are in pretty good shape to lock up 49 seats barring any major surprises, while the GOP seems to have 48 that they should win. That leaves three seats up for grabs in Montana, Iowa and North Carolina. The Democrats need to win at least one of those if Joe Biden somehow takes the White House or two if Donald Trump secures a second term. One of the three just became a lot more problematic for Chuck Schumer and his friends, however.

In North Carolina, challenger Cal Cunningham (D) was holding on to a very slim lead over incumbent Thom Tillis (R) up until this week. But then a couple of October surprises dropped on Cunningham’s head in the form of leaked text messages of a sexual nature with two different women, neither of whom was Cunningham’s wife. The second woman to be involved is also married to someone else and their exchanges were pretty graphic. (WRAL)

A California woman on Tuesday confirmed to The Associated Press that she had a physical relationship with Cal Cunningham, North Carolina’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Both are married to other people.

Cunningham last week admitted to texting Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist. Texts obtained by WRAL and verified by The Associated Press offer new insight into a long-distance relationship.

“I just want to [expletive] him one last time and break his heart,” one text from Guzman Todd reads.

Given the shifting demographics of North Carolina, the fight to retain Tillis’ seat was always going to be challenging. When he won the seat in 2014, the margin of victory was barely 1%. Of course, he was running against an incumbent at that time, whereas now the roles are reversed. But North Carolina has been slipping a lot more into the purple category of late, if not a very light shade of blue, so Tillis has had a real fight on his hands from day one.

As the linked analysis indicates, Cunningham was seen as a dream candidate by Chuck Schumer and the Senate Democrats. He was described as somebody “straight out of central casting.” He’s comfortable on the stump, he’s a military veteran, a family man and he has experience in the state legislature. But will these revelations bring him down?

There was a time a few decades ago when I’d have said that a scandal like this would be the end for Cunningham and he would lose if he didn’t just drop out of the race in disgrace. But 21st-century politics are a far cry from the norms of the seventies and eighties. There are far fewer undecided voters and the two sides are constantly locked in bitter battles. Congressional and Senate races don’t really feel quite as “local” anymore. Voters are looking at the big picture more than the specific needs of their state or district. There are probably plenty of Democrats and left-leaners in North Carolina who will be willing to turn a blind eye to any of Cunningham’s indiscretions if it means a chance at seizing control of the Senate. That’s particularly true if there are any more openings on the Supreme Court on the horizon.

It’s still fairly early in the development of this sexting scandal, but an early poll from PPP over the weekend seems to support this idea. 58% of North Carolinians who had heard about the texts said it won’t change their vote. But 37% said that the news made them “less likely” to vote for Cunningham. Of course, the possibility exists that the people in that 37% category had no intention of voting for him anyway. But if not, perhaps that will turn out to be enough to prevent the seat from flipping back to the Democrats.

This race is already looking like it will come down to the wire. The same goes for Joni Ernst’s race in Iowa and the similarly tight battle in Montana. We may not know the results on any of these races on the morning of November 4th if there are too many mail-in ballots, so break out the popcorn and wait for a series of protracted contests coming our way.