RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham inched back into the public sphere on Wednesday, a day after The Associated Press reported the Democratic contender had an intimate encounter this summer with a public relations consultant.
Within hours of the military disclosing that it is investigating Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, he rejected the idea that the race with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis had turned into a referendum on his character, even while expressing remorse for extramarital activity.
"I’ve made it clear that I’ve hurt my family and that I’ve disappointed my supporters, and I’m taking responsibility for that,” Cunningham told WNCN-TV, which found him in the parking lot of a Raleigh coffee shop. “I’m very clear that this campaign isn’t about my personal life; it’s about the people of North Carolina; it's about the issues that are important to North Carolinians, and that’s what I’m staying focused on.”
Cunningham acknowledged late last week that he and the woman — both of whom are married — had exchanged sexually suggestive text messages. On Tuesday, the AP, citing previously undisclosed texts and additional interviews, reported the relationship extended beyond texts to an intimate encounter as recent as July.
“The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving (Lt. Col.) James Cunningham,” Lt. Col. Simon Flake said in an emailed statement Wednesday morning that cited Cunningham by his official first name. “As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time.”
Flake did not explain why the Army is investigating or how Cunningham’s relationship with the woman might affect his military career. Adultery has long been a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Last year the wording was broadened to include any “extramarital sexual contact.” Service members can face a maximum penalty of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and confinement for a year.
Cunningham and his campaign had been largely quiet since he acknowledged the texts last Friday and apologized. But that changed Wednesday with comments by him and his allies.
Cunningham campaign spokesperson Rachel Petri said in a news release that the candidate “will participate in this process," a reference to the military investigation — but she also noted that it “does not change the stakes of this election or the need for new leaders who will fight for the issues North Carolinians care about.”
Meanwhile, Tillis, who is quarantined in his North Carolina home after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, has gone on television several times saying voters need to hear directly from Cunningham, who he said made the race about integrity in a recent debate. The candidates have faced off three times. No more debates are scheduled.
“He owes North Carolinians a full explanation,” Tillis’ campaign account tweeted Wednesday. “The truth still matters in North Carolina, Cal.”
Cunningham also made his first quasi-public appearance Wednesday night — speaking briefly at an environmental awards ceremony. While the event was fully online, the fact that Cunningham appeared virtually with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker signaled he’s not considered politically radioactive.
During the event, Cunningham apologized again to those watching and said the campaign “is about something much bigger than just me.”
State Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin renewed his endorsement by attacking Tillis. “The fact is that there’s only one candidate who has blocked Medicaid expansion, voted to end protections for people with preexisting conditions, and enabled this administration’s bungled response to this pandemic, which is why North Carolina will send Cal to the U.S. Senate next month," he said in a news release.
Cunningham, who serves in a legal unit based at Fort Bragg, has made his military career a key element of his campaign. In television ads, he mentions his decision to volunteer for the Army Reserve in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and has prosecuted military contractors for misconduct. He has said he would emphasize rooting out corruption from Washington if elected.
"I’ve always run to the fight,” he says in a recent TV commercial, adding that in the military, “I’ve learned that our country comes before party.”
Without addressing the specifics of Cunningham's situation, military law expert Eric Carpenter said Wednesday in an interview that a reservist can't be court-martialed unless several legal hurdles are met, including evidence the sexual contact happened while the reservist was on active duty. However, a commanding officer could separately issue a reprimand for unbecoming conduct, said Carpenter, a professor at Florida International University College of Law.
The Tillis-Cunningham race is closely contested and the most expensive Senate race in the country in terms of campaign spending. There’s been $112 million spent for or against candidates by independent expenditure groups since the general election began in March, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.