Cunningham planned to inch back into the public sphere on Wednesday, a day after it was reported that the Democratic contender had an intimate encounter this summer with a public relations consultant. He was scheduled to make his first quasi-public appearance at an event - speaking briefly at an environmental awards ceremony.
"I am deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused in my personal life, and I also apologize to all of you, and I hope each of you watching at home will accept this sincere apology," Cunningham said at the event.
Sen. Thom Tillis' campaign was quick to respond to Cunningham's first public statement since the stunning developments broke Friday night.
"Cal Cunningham's comments tonight only make his scandal -- and the hypocrisy of his campaign -- worse," Tillis for Senate campaign manager Luke Blanchat said. "Cunningham is afraid to directly address why and how he betrayed the trust of North Carolinians. He offered no explanation for his extramarital affairs, instead choosing to read off an insincere apology written by his campaign consultants from DC, in line with the fake and insincere persona he is trying to sell to North Carolina. Cal Cunningham needs to stop hiding behind prewritten statements and teleprompters. He needs to answer every single question from reporters he has spent the last week ignoring. North Carolinians deserve a full explanation; the truth still matters."
On Wednesday, a spokesperson with the Army Reserve Strategic Communications office confirmed that Cunningham in under investigation.
The statement said: "The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving Lt. Col. James Cunningham. As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time."
It's not clear at this time 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 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 immediately 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."
State Democratic Party Chair Wayne Goodwin renewed his endorsement for Cunningham by attacking opponent Thom 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.
The close race started making news outside the campaign trail after Tillis tested positive for COVID-19. He was photographed not wearing a mask at a private White House reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
But will the external factors impact what voters do at the polls?
"If we can't trust him with his family and regards to how we treat his family, how can we trust him to make the right decision for government," Fayetteville veteran Tyler Stitt said of Cunningham on Wednesday. "Tillis is going to be there and watch out for us republicans and stand for what we believe in."
Bill Snuggs is a registered democrat who said Cunningham's affair won't sway his vote.
"The scandal does concern me, but when I weigh what Tillis stands for and what he doesn't stand for, trying to get rid of Obamacare," said Snuggs. "That's enough for me."
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 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.
The Associate Press contributed to this report.