N. Carolina Senate race upended by sexting, virus diagnosis

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FILE - Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham speaks during a televised debate with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Raleigh, N.C. Cunningham has admitted to sending sexual text messages to a California strategist who is not his wife. Cunningham apologized but said he would not drop out of the race in a statement to multiple news outlets late Friday. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool, file)

RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina's intensely competitive and expensive U.S. Senate race has been upended by personal and health disruptions that sent sharp tremors and uncertainty through the campaigns and an electorate already casting ballots.

Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham acknowledged and apologized for exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a woman who’s not his wife, but he said he won’t drop out of the race. And just a few hours earlier Friday evening, his opponent, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, announced he has tested positive for COVID-19. The first-term senator has “mild symptoms,” and the positive test forced Tillis to cancel in-person events as several members of his campaign staff headed into quarantine, less than five weeks until Election Day.

“It’s chaos — it’s really what I see it is,” David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said in a Saturday interview.

In the text message exchanges, Cunningham tells the woman he wants to kiss her and she says she wants to spend the night with him. The messages were first reported by the website NationalFile.com.

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry. The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do,” Cunningham said in his statement late Friday.

Cunningham, who is married with two teenage children, added he's staying in the Senate race: “I will continue to work to earn the opportunity to fight for the people of our state.”

The race is the nation's most expensive Senate campaign and considered key to determining the power balance in the chamber. Democrats need to gain four seats in November to take control. The developments come as voting already has gone on for four weeks in North Carolina, as 341,000 completed mail-in absentee ballots already have been accepted and will be counted. Early in-person voting begins Oct. 15.

McLennan and Gary Pearce, a longtime state Democratic consultant, said it's unclear how much of an effect the text messages will have on the election.