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

With North Carolinians seeking economic, health care relief, the US Senate candidates differ sharply on how to deliver it.

“One hundred per cent,” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis replied when asked if he supported voting by mail.

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham also expressed confidence in the state’s absentee ballot system, but that he planned to vote in person at an early voting site. 

It was a rare instance of near-agreement in last night’s debate between North Carolina’s junior senator and his former State Senator and Iraq War veteran Cunningham.

With polls in a dead heat, the closely divided state is seen as a potential pickup for the Democrats, which could give the party control of the U.S. Senate

The candidates battled over COVID-19 relief, a potential vaccine and police reform in Raleigh TV station WRAL’s studio. Tillis went on the attack, attempting to paint Cunningham as an unprincipled opportunist. Cunningham characterized Tillis as an example of systemic corruption and big money influence crippling the government’s ability to function.

“Cal will say anything to get elected,” was Tillis’ frequent refrain.

Cunningham, meanwhile, alluded to revelations that the president withheld information about the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in January.

Cunningham criticized Tillis for a month of inaction after he was briefed on the virus in late January. 

“Provide us the information,” said Cunningham. “It’s an essential quality of leadership, that we share what we know.”

Tillis lambasted Cunningham for opposing Trump’s travel ban. Cunningham pointed out that the ban allowed 40,000 people into the U.S. without being vetted.

Debate moderator and Raleigh news anchor David Crabtree voiced safety concerns about a rapidly developed potential coronavirus vaccine. Cunningham echoed that caution.

Citing health experts’ questions about The Center for Disease Control’s changes to COVID-19 testing guidance, he said: “I’ve got questions. We’ve seen entirely too many times, and especially in recent years, politics intervening in what should be driven by health and science.”

Cunningham’s comments seemed to be a reflection of concerns that the Trump administration would rush a vaccine. The president reportedly told Fox News a vaccine would be available before the election, although public health experts have repeatedly said a vaccine would likely not be available until 2021.

Tillis characterized his opponent’s statement as reckless.

“In the middle of a crisis you don’t undermine an effective process of the FDA,” Tillis said. “That statement puts lives at risk and it makes it more difficult to manage a crisis.”

Tillis also criticized Cunningham’s opposition to scaled-back COVID-19 relief legislation that Republicans introduced in Washington on Thursday. Democrats charged that the measure, which is significantly smaller than this summer’s initial relief proposal, shortchanged too many pressing needs. The legislation was defeated by a 52-47 vote primarily along party lines, with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul voting with the Democrats.

If the measure came up again, Cunningham said that as NC’s senator, he would definitely vote against the $300 billion aid package.

“It doesn’t go far enough,” Cunningham said, pivoting to criticize Tillis’ refusal to expand Medicaid in the state, while voting repeatedly in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Cunningham also told the story of cancer survivor Bev Veals of Carolina Beach, who was worried that she would lose her health insurance.

“Bev called Senator Tillis’ office to ask what am I supposed to do, [and] was essentially told you’re on your own,” Cunningham said. “You’re going to have to figure that out yourself.”

Tillis replied that the staffer had been disciplined, but not fired.