A candidate running in a critical Southern battleground state got caught in a personal scandal that threatened to upend his campaign just a few weeks before Election Day.
His supporters dug in, saying voters viewed the campaign as a parliamentary type of race to determine the Senate majority and predicted that the personal foibles would have no impact.
Herschel Walker this month in Georgia? No, Cal Cunningham, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in North Carolina two years ago.
In the fall of 2020, Cunningham emerged with a clear lead over Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), in part because of his biography as an Army prosecutor who served in Iraq. But in early October, he acknowledged that he had sent sexually explicit messages to a woman who was not his wife, and, a few days later, she told the media that they had an intimate affair. Cunningham, a married father of two, refused to answer questions about whether he had had other affairs.
In 25 public polls after the revelations and before Election Day, Cunningham led in 22 and was tied in two others.
But his campaign had collapsed. Cunningham lost by nearly two percentage points, falling considerably short of the vote tallies of Democrats Joe Biden in the presidential race and Roy Cooper in the gubernatorial race in the Tar Heel State.
“It’s a self-inflicted wound,” said J. Michael Bitzer, an expert in state politics and a professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C. “You’ve thrown a monkey wrench into your campaign.”
Cunningham’s fate is, by no means, a definitive prologue about what will happen to Walker, the former football star who faces allegations of paying a woman to abort his child in 2009, after he said he became a born-again Christian who was opposed to abortion rights.
Walker has been locked in an extremely close race against Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), one of the most critical contests for determining the Senate majority. The abortion story broke on Oct. 3, two years and a day after Cunningham’s affair allegations.
Walker, a first-time candidate, has denied the assertions but has looked unsteady in several media appearances trying to explain his past. He has taken a familiar path of accusing Democrats of trying to distract voters from real policy.
“They can keep coming at me like that, and they’re doing it because they want to distract people,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Thursday.
The woman has since accused Walker of encouraging her to have a second abortion a couple of years later, but she said she refused and gave birth to their now 10-year-old son.
Cunningham took the same approach in his first media appearance after hunkering down for a few days. “People are tired of hearing about personal issues. They want somebody focused on them,” he told reporters.
Cunningham had offered an apology to his family in a statement but then demanded “that my family’s privacy be respected” and said the affair was not an issue.
In that regard, Cunningham and Walker followed a page from the Donald Trump playbook: Barrel ahead when scandal happens, don’t focus on the issue, and accuse your opponents of worse. It worked in 2016.
Although GOP officials in Georgia and Washington remain strongly behind the Heisman Trophy winner, some unaffiliated Republican strategists in the Peach State find themselves miffed by how Walker cruised through the primary with the blessing of Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“He gets propelled into this Senate race without ever having been vetted,” said Jay Morgan, who worked in Georgia politics for the late Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) and advised former governor Nathan Deal.
Walker has been forced to acknowledge fathering several children out of wedlock and has discussed violent acts toward his first wife, prompting concern that some moderate Republicans and right-leaning independents will happily vote for Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and then take a pass on Walker.
“I think it’s more a case of who’s going to vacate that race — who is going to vote for Kemp and then skip over the Senate race,” Morgan said.
That is precisely what happened to Cunningham two years ago.
Which is its own irony, because for months before, both parties’ strategists had thought that Tillis, who had a rocky relationship with Trump, would lag too far behind his party’s presidential nominee as MAGA voters abandoned him.
Tillis fell 93,000 votes shy of Trump’s totals in the state, and he even fell about 20,000 votes behind Biden’s losing performance in North Carolina.
But Cunningham fell 115,000 votes shy of Biden — and 265,000 votes off Cooper’s victorious vote tally in the governor’s race.
The stench factor was big in the Senate race that year. Almost 50,000 voters who cast their ballots in the presidential race declined to vote in the Senate race.
And almost 240,000 voters chose one of the two fringe candidates in the Senate race, triple the number who voted for a third-party alternative in the presidential contest.
The Cunningham allegations landed at the worst possible moment, just two weeks before early voting started; anyone who had their doubts had enough time to rethink their vote.
“That is when everyone is paying attention,” Bitzer said.
His post-election analysis showed Cunningham took the biggest hit in cities and urban areas, lagging Biden there by 65,000 votes, and by 27,000 votes in the state’s competitive suburbs.
Those results suggest that core Democrats, many of whom did not have deep ties to Cunningham, abandoned him.
Of the 12 candidates to win statewide races in North Carolina two years ago, Tillis received the fewest votes. Cunningham now practices law in Raleigh, with just a single sentence mentioning the 2020 campaign in a more than 800-word biographical section of his website.
In Georgia, establishment Republicans do not expect core conservatives to abandon Walker, despite the inherent contradiction of their strong antiabortion beliefs and the possibility that Walker, 60, paid for a girlfriend to have the procedure.
Cole Muzio, the president of a Christian conservative organization outside Atlanta, sent his supporters a memo Thursday that highlighted, in bold font, that “much about Herschel Walker’s past is extremely problematic” and that the candidate so far had “oscillated between political answers” on the topic.
But the other choice was another Warnock term, Muzio told his fellow Christians, highlighting this portion in bold. “Policies voted for and supported by Raphael G. Warnock harms my neighbor’s family, their business, and their right to worship freely.”
Some Republicans privately are hoping that Walker gets a pass for being a celebrity, so that his past behavior is taken as akin to Trump’s pre-White House days in Manhattan, especially after a video of him making crass comments about assaulting women came out shortly before the 2016 election that he still won.
But others fear that public polls had already shown Walker consistently trailing Kemp’s position, and these latest stories, on top of the initial stories about his personal life, could further drive Republican-leaning voters away from the former football star.
“I think they’re scratching their heads about what to do,” Morgan said.
Georgia also is home to millions of new voters — 1.6 million in just the past four years — many of whom have no allegiance to Walker’s heyday 40 years ago when he was a star athlete at the University of Georgia.
Georgia election law requires someone to clear 50 percent in the election or else head to a December runoff involving the top two finishers. Strategists already thought that was a distinct possibility in the very close race.
Now, campaign managers and consultants will have to try to monitor whether support is shifting to a libertarian candidate, who could draw those alienated Republicans, or if those voters will just skip the Senate race on the ballot.
Bitzer said he could not predict how the Walker scandals will play out this fall, but he said that without question, some of the old rules still did apply to Cunningham.
“He would have had a better chance had he kept his drawers zipped,” he said.