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Coronavirus, Scandal Roil Senate Race in North Carolina

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And to North Carolina now, where, in any other year, two major events in that state's Senate race would have gotten way more coverage. On Friday incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis tested positive for COVID-19, and that same day his opponent, Democrat Cal Cunningham, acknowledged he had sent sexually suggestive text messages to a woman who is not his wife - all of this in a race that could determine which party controls the Senate in January. Jeff Tiberii of member station WUNC in Raleigh is here to fill us in on some more details. Hey, Jeff.

JEFF TIBERII, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so just help us understand here where this race was before all of this happened last Friday.

TIBERII: Sure. So Tillis has long been seen as one of the most vulnerable sitting Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and Democrats keyed in on this race really as long as - going back a year ago. They're pursuing retaking the majority, right? And according to polls, as we look at the last four months, Cunningham has consistently held a modest, single-digit lead over the incumbent here.

CHANG: OK, so what are the candidates doing now?

TIBERII: At the moment, they've both basically retreated. Tillis is in self-isolation. His campaign says that he's no longer showing mild symptoms, but all in-person campaign events are halted for the time being. And we should note here that Tillis was at that Rose Garden event two weekends ago, when President Trump made his announcement for the nomination for the vacancy on the Supreme Court. And notably, Tillis is on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is supposed to consider this controversial nominee beginning next week.

Cunningham issued a statement acknowledging these sexual texts late Friday night, Saturday morning. Since doing that, he has not spoken publicly. He was actually scheduled to participate in a town hall forum this afternoon. I was actually supposed to moderate that - was, of course, interested to hear him address all this. But unfortunately, he backed out this morning, and my efforts to reach him thus far directly have been unsuccessful.

CHANG: So much going on in the homestretch of this. So, I mean, this is one of the most competitive, one of the most expensive races in the country right now. Do you have any sense of where things might go from here?

TIBERII: Well, already, the ads have started. A digital campaign ad out today seeks to compare Cunningham to John Edwards by using these texts. For me, I'm watching for when Tillis emerges, presumably healthy, how he continues to attack Cunningham with these revelations. Important to note - there are no more debates in this race. We've already had three. For Cunningham, who has campaigned as a moderate, veteran, family man, we're collectively waiting to see when and how he addresses this and then, when and how he pivots to continue making his case, that he's the right person for the job.

And as a reminder, the kind of the backdrop to all this is that the stakes here in North Carolina are so incredibly high. It's very much a must-win state for President Trump in order to gain reelection. We're actually one of just five states in the country - the only battleground with presidential, U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections this fall.

CHANG: Right.

TIBERII: And combined with all the state legislative races and a fight over redistricting, it's consequentially the biggest election here in at least 40 years.

CHANG: That is Jeff Tiberii of WUNC. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXMAG'S "ZAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.