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Virus Diagnosis and Secret Texts Upend a Critical Senate Race in a Single Night

WASHINGTON — Even for an election cycle defined by a relentless string of crises and chaos, the amount of time it took for the Senate race in North Carolina, which could determine which party controls the Senate, to fall into utter mayhem was something of a record.

Late Friday night, Cal Cunningham, the former Democratic state senator and Iraq war veteran who has been leading in his bid to oust Senator Thom Tillis, one of the Republican Party’s most vulnerable incumbents, admitted to exchanging flirtatious texts with a woman who is not his wife. That news came nearly three hours after Mr. Tillis announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus and would close his campaign headquarters, in a devastating blow to his already lagging re-election campaign.

In a normal election cycle, either development alone would have registered as head-spinning.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, now what,’” said Michael Bitzer, a political analyst and political science professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

But taken together, Mr. Cunningham’s scandal and Mr. Tillis’s diagnosis have upended the critical race just a month before Election Day, laying waste to both candidates’ core messages just as they were preparing to make their final appeals to voters.

For Mr. Cunningham, a married father of two, news of his romantic texts with a strategist based in California, reported earlier by The Raleigh News and Observer, was a blow to a carefully cultivated personal image that has been a centerpiece of his campaign. Throughout his race, Mr. Cunningham has leaned heavily on his character and biography, playing up his military service and presenting himself as an inoffensive moderate.

Mr. Tillis, a staunch ally of President Trump, had hoped that his participation in a swift confirmation for Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could inject his campaign with a burst of momentum and divert attention from the coronavirus pandemic. Now, his diagnosis has called into question whether Mr. Tillis, a member of the Judiciary Committee that will consider the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, will even be able to attend a high-profile set of confirmation hearings, or vote to confirm her — and indeed whether the proceedings can go on as scheduled at all.

Credit…Pool photo by Bill Clark

“As the news unfolded yesterday, it seemed to be kind of logical that” Mr. Tillis “would get wrapped up in it because he was at the Supreme Court announcement and that is spreading like wildfire,” Mr. Bitzer said. “The late-night acknowledgment by the Cunningham campaign of racy texting — that I think was unexpected, but it adds more uncertainty to a fairly stable campaign dynamic.”

Mr. Tillis announced on Friday night that he had contracted the virus, saying that he had “no symptoms” and was feeling “well” but would quarantine at home for 10 days. The statement came after Mr. Tillis attended a White House ceremony last weekend where Mr. Trump announced Judge Barrett’s nomination. Mr. Tillis was seen wearing a mask during the public portion of the event in the Rose Garden, but took it off during a private indoor reception.

The news sent shock waves among his staff members, some of whom were still waiting to get tested on Saturday, and rippled through Mr. Cunningham’s campaign, as it became clear that the Democrat, who debated Mr. Tillis on Thursday night, would also need to be tested. (Mr. Cunningham tested negative on Saturday, his campaign said.)

It was in that squall of news — and against the backdrop of reports that more of Mr. Trump’s top aides and Republican senators were testing positive for the virus — that Mr. Cunningham’s campaign confirmed that Mr. Cunningham, 47, had sent romantic messages to a public relations strategist, including discussing spending the night together.

“Would make my day to roll over and kiss you about now,” he wrote in one message.

Credit…Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The messages were undated, but in one text he described being “nervous about the next 100 days,” indicating that he had sent the messages in July, while he was actively campaigning.

Mr. Cunningham apologized for the messages in a statement to The News and Observer, but said that he would not drop out of the race.

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” he said. “The first step in repairing these relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do.”

Mr. Tillis’s campaign declined in a statement on Saturday to answer questions about the messages, saying that, “our campaign is focused on the health of Senator Tillis and our staff.” But Senate Republicans’ campaign arm seized on the disclosure.

“Cunningham recently invited cameras into his home for a sit-down interview with himself and his wife and has made ‘duty’ and ‘honor’ central to his candidacy,” Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the campaign arm, said. “Were all those intentional, calculated efforts to distract from his personal misconduct?”

It is not yet clear how the revelation or Mr. Tillis’s positive diagnosis could affect voters in a race that has been so squarely focused on the president and his handling of the pandemic, and strategists close to both camps were reluctant on Saturday to opine on the political implications of either situation.

But Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican consultant, said in an interview that he believed that Mr. Cunningham was facing a more serious challenge than Mr. Tillis.

“Tillis is a management problem,” he said. “Cunningham is a character problem.”

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