You Blew It, Cal Cunningham

Why on earth would someone risk an extramarital affair while running for a Senate seat that could determine the country’s future?

Cal Cunningham wears a blue collared shirt and a black face mask that says "vote" on it.
Cal Cunningham in Durham on Election Day. Reuters/Jonathan Drake

Cal Cunningham, the Democrat who tried to unseat Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, finally conceded on Tuesday. Right after doing so, he released a statement expressing gratitude to his campaign staff, volunteers, and supporters. “I’ll always be proud of the work we did together to lift up the voices of North Carolinians who feel left behind by our politics,” he wrote.

One hopes that Cunningham is considerably less proud of the work he personally did during this campaign. A few weeks before the election, a series of leaked text messages revealed that Cunningham had been having an affair with a public relations consultant. In the aftermath of that news, Cunningham’s favorability ratings dropped and his consistent polling lead shrank. Even if he hadn’t lost—which, again, he did—his decision to jeopardize the entire Democratic project in the face of a tyrannical president and an increasingly dangerous and corrupt Republican Party should disqualify him from running for public office in the future. Lest we forget, Cunningham’s loss makes it all the more certain that Republicans will hold the Senate for the foreseeable future. So maybe, until the Democrats win the Senate, he should hide away in shame.

It’s impossible to say how much Cunningham’s affair affected the final outcome in his race. Many polls overestimated Democrats’ chances in this year’s election. In North Carolina, Cunningham underperformed his polls by a larger margin—more than 3 percentage points—than Joe Biden did. The final RealClearPolitics polling average had Cunningham up by 2.6 points and Donald Trump up by 0.2 points. With 99 percent of North Carolina’s vote counted, it looks like Tillis will beat Cunningham by 1.7 points and Trump will beat Biden by about 1.4.

But Cunningham’s selfishness undoubtedly inflicted some measure of damage on his Senate chances, especially given the tightness of his race. After his stupid affair and stupid extramarital text exchanges were revealed, Cunningham pulled out of at least one scheduled online forum. He stopped giving interviews. He pared down his schedule of events to structured virtual meetings with supportive groups. He stopped informing reporters of his in-person campaign schedule so they couldn’t show up to cover his events and ask him questions. This is not the way a successful political campaign functions in its final month before an election.

Cunningham also gave the GOP an opening to criticize him on character grounds, undermining what was previously a “character-first” campaign, according to one political science professor. All of a sudden, Tillis—who’d disparaged “the Hispanic population” for not wearing face masks, then publicly apologized after being pictured without a mask at the Republican National Convention, then contracted COVID-19 after going maskless again at the Amy Coney Barrett superspreader event—began to seem like the upstanding one in the race. While Cunningham hid from the press, Tillis was trashing him in interviews, telling the Associated Press that the affair “raises a question about whether or not you can believe anything [Cunningham] said up to this point in terms of what he will and will not do if he gets elected to the Senate.” At a campaign stop, Tillis told supporters that Cunningham had “run on a campaign of trust and honor,” but “he’s not been truthful to his family and to his voters and he’s not been honorable to the very uniform that he wears.”

The editorial boards of two local North Carolina newspapers agreed. A joint editorial from the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer stated that the papers had intended to endorse Cunningham before his affair was made public. “His lack of judgment during a race that could swing the balance of power in Washington, as well as his selfishness in taking this risk, should deeply trouble North Carolinians,” the editorial read. “We’re especially concerned about Cunningham’s response to the revelations, which may offer a glimpse into the kind of senator he’d be. … In these past two weeks, he’s avoided questions about his behavior—whether it’s part of a pattern, how it conflicts with his military obligations, and if it involved any campaign funds. That’s not accountability. It’s political strategy.” The affair also gave Republicans a reason to begin highlighting the Army’s launch of an investigation into Cunningham, who is an officer in the Army Reserve (the investigation presumably concerns his adultery, which is a violation of military code). In one ad from the Tillis campaign, veterans scolded Cunningham for his duplicity. “The Code of Military Justice. … It’s how soldiers know we can trust each other in combat. It’s life and death,” the men narrated. “Cal Cunningham violated his oath when he had an affair with another soldier’s wife.”

Let me be clear about exactly why I think Cunningham should be kept awake at night with crushing regret for the next several years at least: Cheating on a spouse is bad, but cheating qua cheating is not an unforgivable moral sin. Here is the real problem: When Cunningham took on the mantle of the Democratic nomination for the North Carolina Senate seat, he wasn’t just applying for a job. He held the entire Democratic political agenda in his hands. The Senate was up for grabs, and the North Carolina race looked like one of the party’s best shots at unseating a Republican. Trump and Senate Republicans were remaking the federal courts as partisan agents of the far-right. GOP officials were deliberately facilitating the spread of a deadly pandemic. The West was burning. Arctic sea ice was failing to freeze in October for the first time on record. When it could not have been clearer how critical it was to the country and the planet’s future that Democrats take the Senate, Cunningham opted to risk another term of GOP Senate control so that he could have a little kissy-time with a woman who wasn’t his wife. In the age of rapidly accelerating climate change and its attendant famines, natural disasters, and refugee crises, it is not an exaggeration to say that Cunningham jeopardized the well-being of every person on Earth for his own fleeting moment of personal satisfaction.

According to Cunningham’s lover, the two of them had their first and only “intimate encounter” in July. What were you doing in July? I was wracked with anxiety about the upcoming election and the rightward skewing of the courts, paralyzed by anger at the then­ tens of thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., and consumed with fear that Trump’s deployment of federal troops to Portland, Oregon, augured a broader military crackdown on demonstrations against police killings. Most sensible political candidates were hosting virtual meet-and-greets, making phone calls to donors, and visiting influential community institutions. Cunningham, meanwhile, was inviting his lover to his house for a little playtime. He knew full well that his indiscretion could tank his candidacy. He evidently just didn’t care.

At the very same time, Cunningham was positioning himself as a morals-driven military guy, a family man who’d represent North Carolina with honor and decency. When he accepted his party’s nomination in March, he identified corruption as the force “standing in the way of progress on the biggest issues of our time.” Actually, it was Mitch McConnell’s Senate majority that was standing in the way of progress in D.C. But instead of doing everything he possibly could to get his butt in a Senate seat for the good of the country, Cunningham opted to have his little affair—during the campaign! When he should have been spending literally all of his time trying to win the race. He looked voters in the eye and promised a champion who’d work to get them affordable health care and fight exploitative health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. He accepted the charge of a high-profile candidacy in a central pillar of the Democrats’ plan to retake the Senate. He convinced North Carolinians that he was their best shot at a better, fairer country. Then he looked in the mirror, shrugged, and went and had some extramarital sex, documented by digital communication.

Cunningham isn’t the only one who should be kicking himself for screwing over America. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer should be, too. Schumer recruited Cunningham for the race, and his Senate Majority PAC spent millions supporting him. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Cunningham in the primary against several other Democrats, including progressive two-term state Sen. Erica Smith, a Black woman in a state whose registered Democrats are nearly half Black. (Cunningham was a former one-term state senator who lost the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010 and hadn’t sought political office since.) According to a Democratic consultant who spoke to Politico and was “familiar with the process” of selecting Cunningham, Democratic leaders saw Cunningham as the candidate “with the fewest vulnerabilities for Republicans to exploit.” State Sen. Jeff Jackson said he’d considered running against Tillis too, but when he told Schumer he wanted to start his campaign by holding a town hall in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Schumer allegedly said, “Wrong answer—we want you to spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money, and then we’re going to spend 80 percent of it on negative ads about Tillis.” And then Schumer went with Cunningham instead.

Might any of these other Democratic candidates have committed an own goal, sexually, in as humiliating a fashion as Cunningham? Sure, that’s technically possible, I suppose. But here’s a thought: Female politicians are far less likely to jeopardize the future of the country for some dumb sex than male ones, in part because they get into politics for different reasons. Research has shown that, broadly, women seek public office because there’s something they want to do, while men run because a politician is something they want to be. One reason is outward-facing, the other inward-facing.

When politicians do generally-frowned-upon sex things while holding or seeking office, it can be accurately read as an expression of narcissism and inflated self-worth. They are placing personal gain over public good. Cunningham’s was the priciest Senate race in U.S. history, with the two campaigns and outside groups spending more than $280 million combined to fight over the direction of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, with consequences that will reverberate for generations. Can you imagine being the object of that kind of investment? Lots of that money came from wealthy donors and PACs, but plenty of regular people, worried for the future of the country and wanting to do their part to build something better, gave of themselves, too. They made small donations to Cunningham’s campaign, spent their weekends phone-banking for him, and wrote letters to their local papers. They trusted him to be their best shot at stanching the bleeding set off by the Trump administration and the GOP Senate, because Cunningham and Schumer had told them as much.

Some people would look at all that time and money marshaled on their behalf and feel humbled—unworthy, even. They’d redouble their efforts to be the best-prepared, hardest-working candidate on the field, lest they waste all those resources and let all those people down. Cunningham had a different response. He saw all that money and all those people working to get him into office, and apparently felt like having sex. The people trusted him with the responsibility of a Senate nomination in a competitive race during Donald Trump’s presidency, and he felt he didn’t owe them so much as a few months with no extramarital liaisons.

I hope Cunningham pays close attention to politics over the next several years. I hope he follows every episode of the McConnell-controlled Senate that, unless the Democrats win both runoff elections in Georgia in January, will make Biden’s presidency a faint shadow of what it could have been. I hope he thinks back on his decision to text “I kiss back. A lot.” to someone who wasn’t his wife, and feels embarrassed. I hope he realizes how much he has betrayed North Carolina Democrats—most of whom will suffer far more under that Senate and that stunted presidency than he will.