Last week, I wrote that something major would need to happen to disrupt the trajectory of the US Senate race in North Carolina. This weekend, it did. Thom Tillis tested positive for COVID and Cal Cunningham got caught exchanging racy texts with a woman in California. While those would be game-changers some years, the impact this year is uncertain.
Tillis’ story is part of a larger national one that involves Trump and a host of other Republicans testing positive after attending a Rose Garden event to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Videos show people like Senator Mike Lee maskless, hugging and shaking hands as people mingle with no adherence to social distancing. Chairs at the event pack people in a tight spot. While Tillis appears with a mask at the outdoor ceremony, he ditched it at the indoor reception following it. So far, Trump, Tillis, Lee, Kelly Ann Conway, Chris Christie, and a number of other attendees have tested positive for the disease.
The irresponsibility of the nation’s leaders disregarding the threat of infection is stunning. Ten months after the virus first arrived in the country, Republicans still cannot seem to grasp its danger. The messages from the White House have been inconsistent and self-serving. Trump and his minions have downplayed the threat to try to bully governors into opening up their states. The party that claims to be pro-life has struck a deal with the grim reaper—we’ll keep the body counts high if we can keep the money flowing.
While Tillis has tried to give the impression of taking the virus seriously, his participation in the event casts doubt on his sincerity. Like every other decision he makes, a political calculation drives his motivation. He wore a mask when he thought the cameras were rolling in the Rose Garden, but he ditched it once he got inside where the threat of spread rose significantly. With infections levels starting rise as temperatures drop and people move indoors, he will need to convince voters that he will do what is necessary to keep them safe while he socializes with a party whose leadership clearly doesn’t take the virus seriously.
Cunningham, for his part, has a very personal problem. One of the complaints about him when he first got into the race was that he’s a boring candidate. He seems to be challenging that image now with the revelation of a series of racy texts between him and a California consultant, but, really, the texts are almost as boring as the candidate himself.
We live in an age when the President of the United States pays off a porn star named Stormy Daniels for a tryst he had just days after his wife gave birth to their son. Jerry Falwell, Jr., the son and namesake of the man who helped make the Christian right a GOP political force, almost survived a scandal that involved him, his wife, and a Florida pool boy. If he hadn’t posted photos of himself with his pants unzipped and his arm around a woman whose shorts were also unzipped, he might still be leading the evangelical university his father founded.
By contrast, the texts between Cunningham and his paramour would be little more than innocent banter if they weren’t both married. The most explicit one says, “the only thing I want on my to-do list is you.” Social media groups were ridiculing the tame nature of the texts. Cunningham’s nerdy personae comes through even in an affair.
Still, he angered Democrats, especially women. He had what was starting to look like a layup election in one of the most important US Senate races in the country and he put his own gratification first. “Didn’t he learn anything from John Edwards?” was a frequent refrain yesterday. He looks reckless and selfish, but, at the end of the day, his main obligation on this matter is to his family, not the public.
I suspect Cunningham’s campaign will survive the affair. Republicans will have a difficult time keeping the narrative going, both because of the amount of news created by the Trump every week and because people just don’t care about infidelity like they once did—or at least as it applies to politicians. If the GOP is going to hold Cunningham accountable, they’ll have to justify why the same standards don’t apply to Trump.
As the Senate race enters its final four weeks, Cunningham is involved a PG-rated sex scandal and Thom Tillis is quarantined with COVID. I expect the COVID story outlasts the scandal. COVID affects all Americans and the party in charge of the White House and Senate clearly don’t take it as seriously as appointing a Supreme Court justice. Cunningham’s problem mainly affects two families, his and his girlfriend’s.
If we were in the midst of stability and a booming economy with international and domestic calm, Cunningham’s affair might be enough of a distraction to hurt him. But we’re not. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic in a country enmeshed in a cultural and societal reckoning over race and inequality. We’ll still be talking about COVID, its threat to the country, and the recklessness of the GOP leadership as they come out of quarantine over the next few weeks. Most people won’t care that much about who is sleeping with whom as long as it’s not in their house.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >