Late one summer night in 2020, Republican political consultant Charles Hellwig received an unexpected phone call.
A California woman had shared text messages with a female friend in Raleigh describing an intimate relationship she was having with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham, a married father of two and U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. The Raleigh woman showed the texts to a male friend.
Through a series of conversations between multiple people, word of the affair eventually got to Hellwig.
With research, determination, and luck, Hellwig helped reveal that Cunningham was having an affair with the wife of an Army veteran, upending one of the country’s most consequential and expensive U.S. Senate races and helping to reelect Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.
“Tillis has no chance of being reelected without Cal Cunningham’s zipper and [the affair] being exposed,” Hellwig proudly said in an interview at his downtown Raleigh office.
Tillis’ campaign has also attributed its win to Cunningham’s extramarital affair.
“It was very tight, but I do believe that if that [affair] hadn’t happened, Cunningham would’ve won,” Glen Bolger, a top pollster for Tillis, said on a conservative podcast months after the election. Tillis won, 49 percent to 47 percent.
The details of how the Cunningham case came to light reveal a shadowy side of politics: Party loyalists working behind the scenes to pry into the lives and careers of opposing candidates, also known as opposition research.
Sometimes they’re self-employed contractors; sometimes they’re employees of the state or national parties or political action groups. The work of this relatively small number of researchers, investigators, and operatives has major ramifications for who wins and who loses, and who controls the levers of public policy.
In the Cunningham case, the affair also prompted a Federal Election Commission investigation into whether he misused campaign funds, as well as an Army Reserve investigation.
The FEC found no evidence of financial misreporting, according to a report obtained by The Assembly. And a person familiar with the outcome of the Army investigation said that while the Army didn’t approve of Cunningham’s personal conduct, it took no punitive action. The Army declined to discuss its findings.
Cunningham, who is now divorced, still lives in Raleigh and has since been promoted to serve as a deputy commander of a Reserve unit. He declined to comment for this article. The California woman, Arlene Guzman Todd, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The investigations didn’t conclude until after Tillis secured a second term that helped create a 50-50 Senate split—one that emboldened moderates like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and stymied the first two years of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
“At the time, I thought I saved the Senate,” Hellwig remembers thinking immediately after the 2020 election, when it appeared Republicans would control the Senate. “I thought I saved the United States.”
Reagan and Helms
Hellwig, 56, already had a history as a disrupter. In the 1996 Republican gubernatorial primary, he served as a hired attack dog for Richard Vinroot’s campaign, frequently blasting Robin Hayes, who won the nomination but lost the general election.
Hellwig says Hayes grew to strongly dislike him during that campaign. That made Hellwig concerned about his future in state politics when Hayes became the state Republican Party chairman from 2011 to 2013, and then again from 2016 to 2019.
“Robin hated me personally because I’d be the one in the paper talking shit about Robin,” Hellwig said. “That was my job. I remember standing out front of the North Raleigh Hilton before the primary and Robin comes up to me and he’s like, ‘When all of this is over with boy, I’m gonna take care of you.’ And he’s poking me. I’m a kid and I’m like, ‘Fuck you, old man. Who are you? I’m just doing my job.’”
Hayes said he had no memories of Hellwig before his chairmanship days and didn’t recall crossing paths with him. He disputed Hellwig’s story about animosity from the 1996 gubernatorial campaign.
“I remember Charles Hellwig, but what you described is not something I have ever done or would ever do,” Hayes said. He added, “I have no recollection at all of animosity toward him [Hellwig].”
Hayes ultimately resigned as state party chairman over his role in a coordinated effort with insurance company magnate Greg Lindberg to unduly influence State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. Former President Trump pardoned Hayes on his final day in office.
Hellwig, who grew up in Greenville, North Carolina and Raleigh, has always liked to talk. His father, Bob, recalled his son fighting with siblings over what shows to watch on the television. The younger Hellwig offered a detailed explanation about why his shows were of greater substance and value than what his siblings wanted.
Charles Hellwig’s interest in politics began to take shape in high school. His first political memory was seeing then-President Ronald Reagan’s passing motorcade in the 1980s. After receiving encouragement from a friend, Hellwig helped distribute yard signs for then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.
Hellwig, who is 6-foot-3 and weighs 300 pounds, played football at Guilford College before leaving the sport and transferring to UNC-Chapel Hill. He left UNC two classes shy of an undergraduate degree and moved to Washington, D.C., to explore politics. By day, he worked for the Fairfax County Republican Party. By night, he was a bartender.
After helping out on a couple grueling and unsuccessful campaigns in Virginia, he returned to North Carolina after receiving a call from veteran GOP strategist Paul Shumaker to help with Vinroot’s campaign.
When Hayes first took over as chairman, Hellwig questioned his future in Republican circles. He decided to become “Mr. Mom,” he said, and assumed primary caregiving for his twin sons, born in 2012, when his wife returned to work. But over time, Hellwig found himself getting sucked back into politics.
He won the volunteer of the year award from the Wake County GOP in 2015. He later worked his way up to the state party’s Central Committee, where he developed a reputation as cordial but unafraid to speak his mind.
“He would ask tough questions,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a former executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. “He was a stickler for the rules, and you need those people.
“He’s just a big old huggable teddy bear of a guy. He has the ability to call you up and tell you that he thinks you’re screwing something up or you’re wrong in very direct terms and turn around and walk away and shake your hand and move onto the next thing.”
Not Conservative Enough
It wasn’t just state party officials Hellwig tangled with. To him, Tillis wasn’t conservative enough, so Hellwig managed the campaign of Garland Tucker, a Raleigh businessman who briefly challenged Tillis in the 2020 Republican primary.
Hellwig shook up the party apparatus, and that’s how he wants to be seen. “I’m a right-wing nut that wants to help the most conservative candidate that can win,” Hellwig said.
Tucker ended his primary challenge after Tillis became a closer ally of Trump during impeachment hearings.
Hellwig’s biggest successes came in 2020 when he revealed Cunningham’s affair (Hellwig wasn’t paid by the Tillis campaign) and was a paid adviser for Republican state Rep. Erin Paré of Wake County, who defeated a Democratic incumbent. Hellwig also worked to reelect Paré last year.
Had she or any other state House Republican lost in any one of the handful of competitive races they won, Republicans wouldn’t have the supermajority they enjoy today—a supermajority that has loosened gun laws and limited abortion access over the objection of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
“Charles knows people,” Paré said. “He just knows how people think and has a really good finger on the pulse of people in general. If you’re on the left side, right side or a base voter, he understands the worldview.”
In 2022, Hellwig served as an adviser to Kelly Daughtry, a primary opponent of Bo Hines, a Trump-backed political newcomer who wound up losing an open Triangle congressional seat to Democrat Wiley Nickel.
Now Hellwig is overseeing the campaign of Fred Von Canon, a businessman seeking next year to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Don Davis, who represents northeastern North Carolina.
That will put Hellwig in opposition to firebrand Sandy Smith, a Trump loyalist who lost to Davis last year despite the former President’s endorsement. Hellwig’s opposition to Smith is in keeping with his philosophy that he supports the most conservative candidate who he thinks can win in November.
The Power of Oppo
The closest races can determine the balance of Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly. If just one of the 101 races that swung for legislative Republicans in 2022 went blue, Cooper’s veto may have killed 14 bills this session. But Republicans have had just enough votes to override him.
Opposition research can tip a race. In one legislative contest last year, early morning and late night stakeouts shifted the narrative.
Democrat Valerie Jordan sought a state Senate seat from northeastern North Carolina, but Republicans said she lived in Raleigh. State law requires legislative candidates to live in the district they seek to represent, and Jordan insisted she had a home in Warrenton she moved into after her mother died.
GOP operatives Nathan Babcock and Dylan Watts regularly took photos outside the Raleigh home where Jordan was purportedly living. While state elections officials ultimately voted along party lines to allow Jordan to remain on the ballot, the dozens of photos and other evidence didn’t help her campaign. Republican Bobby Hanig won by 5 percentage points.
In another close race, House GOP Caucus Director Stephen Wiley gathered decades-old court documents describing a 1994 incident in which Democratic Rep. Terry Garrison of Vance County was accused of assaulting his ex-wife. She secured a domestic violence protective order against Garrison, but eventually withdrew her complaint.
Wiley had the court documents vetted by lawyers and coordinated with the North Carolina Republican Party to have an 11.5-inch-by-14-inch mailer sent to 23,342 households.
The mailer quoted Garrison’s ex-wife, displayed an image of the court document describing domestic abuse and included a QR code directing people to additional information. Garrison said that the attack ads were misleading, and that the couple had worked out their differences and ended their marriage amicably.
Republican Frank Sossamon wound up defeating Garrison by less than 2.7 percentage points, or 732 votes.
For Wiley, the mailer accomplished the three things he has found are essential to opposition research: It was accurate, something voters wanted to know, and wouldn’t have otherwise been known by the general public.
“My view is the same as I imagine every journalist’s would be: Wouldn’t you rather at least have the opportunity to know more about the people that you’re voting for?” Wiley asked.
To effectively influence a relatively small number of swayable voters, Shumaker says a successful message can’t be overtly political. It must be relevant to the recipient, shared in a medium with reach and reported on by trusted, nonpartisan media outlets.
On the Democratic side, political operative David Wheeler served as president of the American Muckrakers PAC, a group that 2020 Democratic congressional candidate Moe Davis created to boot his former Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, out of office last year.
Wheeler’s group dug into Cawthorn’s personal life, social media posts, and actions while in elected office.
The group shared its findings privately to reporters and publicly through social media and their Fire Madison website. They helped unearth stories of Cawthorn getting caught with a gun at an Asheville airport, simulating a sex act with another man, and presenting a town with an enlarged infrastructure check made possible by a bill he opposed.
Wheeler, who is now running for insurance commissioner, attributes Cawthorn’s defeat to the cumulative effect of negative stories. He said most of the negative information the group put out came through tips, while the remainder emerged from the group acting on its own knowledge.
“Oppo confirms human nature and inclinations that people have about candidates,” Wheeler said. “But it takes multiple instances of that behavior or that character flaw to confirm it. People give candidates the benefit of the doubt once in a while, but if there’s a pattern, it just confirms what people think.”
Cawthorn wound up losing to now-U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards in the primary, in part from the onslaught of attacks levied against him by Democrats and Republicans alike.
“The key to oppo is making sure you build a story around a candidate that’s obviously not very flattering to that candidate, but is factually based,” Wheeler said. “Without the facts and without a story, it ain’t gonna work.”
Wheeler said his political action group plans to focus its attention in 2024 on Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the Republican frontrunner for his party’s gubernatorial nomination. “He’s an oppo research firm’s dream,” Wheeler said.
The Cunningham Affair
Sometimes the oppo comes from partisan insiders. Other times it’s collected through random tips. In the case of the 2020 Senate race, Hellwig came across the information through connections and luck.
Guzman Todd’s husband and Cunningham had served in the Army Reserve together, and Guzman Todd attended a California campaign event for Cunningham in March. She later shared intimate text messages from Cunningham with her Raleigh friend.
The friend told another friend, who then relayed the information to another person, who then made the late-night phone call to Hellwig.
One of those parties sent Hellwig screenshots of flirty text messages between Guzman Todd and Cunningham. Hellwig wasn’t certain if they were real, but he thought the messages sounded like Cunningham.
He said he reached out to several media outlets during the summer to share his tip, but none published a story.
“Nobody wanted to touch it and I understand why,” Hellwig said. “We keep digging for more and more stuff. The friend is giving us more stuff, but nobody is interested in putting it out because it’s all circumstantial.”
Hellwig learned Guzman Todd would be visiting the Triangle and planned to connect with Cunningham, and he saw an opportunity for clear evidence of an affair. Hellwig tipped off the conservative political group America Rising, which sent representatives to stake out Cunningham’s Raleigh home for a weekend that August.
Nothing came of it. Hellwig thought he’d missed his opportunity.
But then in September, Hellwig had a call with Noel Fritsch, an acquaintance who worked as an editor at the conservative website National File. Hellwig then shared some of his notes. A day or two later, Fritsch called back saying he and his team gathered enough information to disclose the affair.
“Noel made all the connections,” Hellwig said. “We just started the ball rolling.”
Fritsch declined to detail their process, but confirmed Hellwig’s account. Patrick Howley, one of the outlet’s reporters, worked to break the story.
“Thom Tillis owes that Senate seat to Donald Trump and National File,” Fritsch said. “Thom Tillis owes Noel Fritsch. Charles Hellwig didn’t take the header. National File took the header,” meaning that National File assumed the risk.
Hellwig said: “There’s like six or eight things that were really pretty random, and if they hadn’t happened, this ends.”
National File’s story, which included screenshots of the texts between Guzman Todd and Cunningham, was published on October 1. A day later, Cunningham confirmed the authenticity of the texts, but didn’t admit to an affair.
“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” Cunningham said in a statement. “The first step in repairing those relationships is taking complete responsibility, which I do. I ask that my family’s privacy be respected in this personal matter.”
The Raleigh News & Observer published a story on October 2 confirming the existence of the texts, and media outlets across the country published their own stories in the following days.
But Hellwig wasn’t done. The articles confirmed the texts, but not an affair. Hellwig convinced Guzman Todd’s friend to turn over all the text messages she had. Hellwig sent the material to the Associated Press and connected the wire service to the friend.
The AP ran a story on October 6, citing the texts and reporting that Guzman Todd and Cunningham had a non-sexual encounter in March and a sexual tryst in July.
Hellwig’s mission was complete.
Correction: This article originally said Cal Cunningham had an affair with the wife of a fellow Army Reserve member. It has been corrected to say that Cunningham had an affair with the wife of an Army veteran.
Bryan Anderson is a freelance reporter who most recently covered elections, voting access, and state government for WRAL-TV. He previously reported for the Associated Press and The News & Observer. You can subscribe to his newsletter here.