CNN  — 

The fight for the Senate majority this fall has huge implications – from which judges wind up on the Supreme Court (and lower courts) to whether the next president can hope to get his agenda through Congress. Those high stakes make the fact that the majority could well come down to a late-breaking sexting scandal in North Carolina all the more amazing.

Here’s what we know: Former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, a Democrat, has admitted to sending romantic texts to a woman who is not his wife.

“I have hurt my family, disappointed my friends, and am deeply sorry,” Cunningham said in a statement to CNN. “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.”

Cunningham’s campaign insists that he will stay in the race against Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, although he did back out of a town hall scheduled for Monday night. (Tillis was not scheduled to appear.)

The messages are far from tawdry – they read like 1950s letters – but the very fact that they exist does throw a major X factor into the Senate race. Tillis, too, made news at the latter part of last week with an announcement that he had tested positive for Covid-19. All indications from his office, however, is that he experienced “mild symptoms” and no one else around him has tested positive.

While the public has grown more immune to sex (or text) scandals in the past few years, it remains a fact that this storyline is not anything close to how Cunningham had hoped to close this campaign – a campaign that was his to lose.

And it is a race that has major national implications beyond just North Carolina.

Democrats need to net three seats if Joe Biden is elected and four seats if Donald Trump wins a second term to capture the Senate majority on November 3. Most independent prognosticators give Democrats a 50-50 chance (or better) of taking the majority. “Democrats are more likely than not to gain control of the Senate (projecting a net gain of three to five seats),” wrote Inside Elections editor Nathan Gonzales in his October 1 edition.

Gonzales also moved the North Carolina seat from “toss up” to “tilt Democratic,” making it one of four Republican-held seats in that category. (Maine, Colorado and Arizona are the other three.) Of the race, he wrote: “Tillis has been stuck in the high-30s to low to mid-40s in most ballot tests for months. That’s not a sign of strength for an incumbent.”

All of which is true! There hasn’t been a poll released since mid-June that showed Tillis ahead of Cunningham, and the Democrat’s current average lead, according to Real Clear Politics, is 6.5%.

That was all before Cunningham’s admission. And, it’s worth noting, before Tillis became one of three Republican senators to come down with Covid-19 in the wake of an outbreak at the White House that includes Trump.

Those twin developments are too recent to be measured in credible polling just yet. In one good sign for Cunningham, however, there has yet to be any sort of hue and cry from his fellow Democrats for him to leave the race amid this scandal. State Sen. Erica Smith, who Cunningham beat in this year’s Democratic primary and who has already announced her intention to run for the expected open seat of Republican Sen. Richard Burr in 2022, told the News & Observer that “Cunningham had a critical lapse in judgment and morality,” but that “I ask our supporters to unite around our platform and stand with Cal for NC.”

The timing of the story is clearly not good for Cunningham, however. Early in-person voting begins on October 15 in North Carolina, meaning that the issue will likely still be in the news when voters begin early voting next week. (As of October 5, 386,200 absentee ballots had already been cast in the state, according to the state’s Board of Elections website.)

It will take a week (or maybe more) for voters to process this information – and for polls to measure whether Cunningham’s poor judgment changes the race in any meaningful way.

But what we know is that had this sexting scandal not occurred, Cunningham was on a steady course to knock off Tillis on November 3. And that any Democrats had already begun to count his seat in their calculations of how many they needed to retake the majority.

That math has to now be put on hold until we see some hard data out of North Carolina as to how much (or little) Cunningham’s scandal has affected his appeal to voters. Which means that Democrats’ march to the Senate majority, which seems to be gaining more likely with each passing days, now has hit an odd pause.