Joe Manchin is the last conservative Democrat serving in the U.S. Senate. He’s also Washington’s most powerful politician whose single vote, as we’ve learned the past few weeks, can derail President Biden’s most progressive plans to expand the federal government.
And the reason for the West Virginia’s senator’s newfound power – and Biden’s frustration – likely can be traced back to the work of a little-known North Carolina Republican operative.
Washington Democrats might have a blank check if they had flipped just one more Senate seat last fall. And by all accounts, Democrat Cal Cunningham was on his way to beating Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in 2020 and delivering that 51st Democratic seat. That was until his tryst with the wife of a wounded combat veteran went public, soiling his carefully crafted clean image and wrecking his campaign.
Election data now confirms the anecdotal evidence suggesting Cunningham’s affair was the decisive moment in the campaign: Over 157,000 more North Carolinians voted for a third-party candidate in the U.S. Senate race than in the races for president or governor. Tillis’ pollster and national data gurus, including 538’s Nate Silver, say the affair made the difference.
But how did the affair go public? That’s a story that’s never been told and the work of a GOP operative you’ve probably never heard of.
Meet Charles Hellwig.
A 54-year-old bar owner turned political operative, Hellwig has worked behind the scenes on countless campaigns, mainly around Wake County. He served as campaign manager during Garland Tucker’s 2020 primary challenge of Tillis. And about six months after their campaign to oust the U.S. Senator ended, Hellwig got a phone call that would help him save Tillis’ political career.
An old GOP colleague had some news: he met a woman in Raleigh who claimed her friend was having an affair with Cunningham – and she had screenshots of racy text messages to prove it. Hellwig’s buddy didn’t know what to do with the gossip or the texts, but Hellwig did and sprung into action.
“When I saw the texts, I knew they had to be real,” Hellwig said. “They were too cheesy to be fake.”
Hellwig and his friend worked around the clock researching the alleged mistress, compiling every detail and connecting dots. They sent the details to opposition researchers and packaged them up for some state and national reporters.
After shopping the story for over two months, Hellwig got nowhere and started to lose hope.
“Really frustrating,” he said. “I thought it was dead.”
Then one day, with absentee ballots trickling in and early voting drawing near, a writer from the conservative blog National File called Hellwig about an unrelated story. As he ended the call, the writer asked Charles for political tips. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Hellwig sent him the texts.
National File confirmed the details and published the story.
Hellwig then contacted McClatchy Washington correspondent Brian Murphy, to whom he hadn’t previously pitched the story. Murphy asked Cunningham to comment. The candidate confirmed the affair, and the rest is history.
“I made jokes that if this saves the Senate, we should make a movie,” Hellwig said. “It has all the juicy details everyone associates with politics. And it turns out conservatives really had to have this Senate seat. It’s still hard to believe.”
It’s usually the big events and big names that decide elections: Recessions. Wars. Pandemics. Transformational figures like Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
But every once in a while, something or someone behind-the-scenes delivers a game-changing moment. The next time Joe Manchin flexes his muscle in Washington, remember the North Carolina Republican who made it possible.
Contributing columnist Ray Martin is a former press secretary for Republican N.C. Sen. Phil Berger. He is a partner with The Differentiators, a Raleigh consulting firm.