Graphic for Cardinal & Pine by Desirée Tapia. US Senate candidates Cunningham and Tillis clash on coronavirus.
Graphic for Cardinal & Pine by Desirée Tapia.

Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham close on gradual reopening, but at odds on Trump administration’s handling of COVID-19. 

As North Carolina’s economy reopens, Gov. Roy Cooper walks a knife’s edge. 

Critics in the Reopen group say the governor is moving too slowly. Others, like Durham County Department of Public Health Director Rodney Jenkins, caution against rushing to reopen

But disagreement over Cooper’s three-phase plan to revive the economy does not extend to the state’s tight U.S. Senate race, a contest that could determine which party controls the chamber in 2021. 

Tillis, a one-term Republican senator from Charlotte, and Cal Cunningham, a Democratic  former state senator and Army prosecutor, have both supported Cooper’s policies and the state’s pace in implementing them.

“We need to…put the peak of the curve in our rear-view mirror before we can begin to safely reopen our economy,” Tillis said in April, weeks after Cooper issued a stay-at-home order to the state.

Tillis backed Cooper’s gradual reopening then, saying it follows the White House’s guidance as laid out by its Coronavirus Task Force.

Cunningham campaign spokesperson Aaron Simpson said that Cunningham also commends Cooper’s efforts, while reserving criticism for the White House.

“While the Governor continues to listen to the experts and put the needs of the people first, the federal government was caught flat-footed and continues to botch [their] response,” Simpson said.

Stakes Are High

The stakes are high as Cooper’s administration struggles to get people back to work and to save lives. North Carolina is the fifth hardest hit state for job losses, with unemployment expected to surpass double-digits before the pandemic runs its course. 

As of Wednesday, more than 20,000 people in North Carolina have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 702 have died.

On Wednesday, Cooper was expected to announce whether the state will transition Friday from Phase One, which allows people to leave their homes for commercial activity, to Phase Two, potentially opening restaurants, barbershops, salons and community pools.

And with COVID-19 likely to be a factor this fall, the impacts on Election Day and the Tillis-Cunningham race are expected to be far-reaching.

A WRAL-TV poll taken in late April found Cunningham leading Tillis by a two-point margin. Cooper’s polling has been particularly strong during the pandemic, with his policies enjoying relatively strong support among conservatives, moderates and progressives.

Cooper and local officials have been successful shepherding the state’s COVID-19 response, says Simpson, the Cunningham spokesperson, despite unfulfilled promises of personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing supplies from the federal government,

“Cal has spoken out about equipment shortages, the need to extend additional support to communities struggling, and the need to expand Medicaid in North Carolina to help ensure more people can have health insurance,” Simpson said. 

While Medicaid expansion has been supported by North Carolina Democrats, it is opposed by the state’s GOP General Assembly majority. 

In a statement to Cardinal & Pine, Tillis touted bi-partisan measures like the passage of four federal COVID-19 response packages, which provide aid totaling more than $4 trillion.

“Every elected official has an obligation to put our country before party in order to protect the health of the American people and quickly mobilize resources,” Tillis said.

Tillis pointed to the success of the CARES Act and the troubled Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), both of which he backed.

“I’ve been proud to support these legislative measures that provide relief for businesses and individuals alike,” Tillis said.

But Cunningham says the federal government needs to do more to support minority-owned businesses and small businesses. 

“Greater oversight is needed to ensure that this money is getting to small businesses the law was intended to help, not massive corporations,” Simpson offered.

Asked about steps to stem a possible second wave of infection, Tillis pointed to a provision he pushed — $826 million for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to research necessary vaccines and diagnostics.

Cunningham counters that local measures to stem infection have succeeded while also having to overcome failures at the federal level, Simpson offers.

“Thanks to decisive leadership on the state level, North Carolina has continued to make progress in combating coronavirus and keeping our communities safe,” Simpson said. “Cal believes that in order to safely re-open and prepare for future outbreaks, North Carolina needs to have sufficient testing and personal protective equipment.”