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

Cal Cunningham says Supreme Court confirmation should await the winner of November presidential election.

At one point during Tuesday night’s rancorous debate, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham sounded like he was in complete agreement with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. 

But the Tillis that Cunningham found agreement with was the one who wrote in a 2016 Op Ed that, “Voters … should decide the composition of the highest court in the land…[and] also determine the direction of the Supreme Court.”

CBS 17’s Angela Taylor read Tillis’ words back to him, asking if his current promise to confirm President Trump’s nominee for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacated seat is a flip flop. Tillis’ vote could help swing the court to a 6-3 conservative majority which would potentially overturn Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act. 

If the latter is repealed, an estimated 29 million Americans, and about 1 million North Carolinians, could lose access to health insurance, according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute. Many more could also find their insurer would no longer be forbidden from excluding them for pre-existing conditions. 

Tillis reiterated Tuesday that he would support whoever the president put forth.  

RELATED: Trump or North Carolina? Critics Say Thom Tillis Can’t Please Both

Former State Senator and Iraq War veteran Cunningham echoed 2016 Thom Tillis, saying that the voters deserved to be heard before a new justice was seated.

“Instead, within hours of the passing of Justice Ginsburg, [Tillis] called for an immediate vote,” Cunningham said.

Despite the potential consequences at the US Supreme Court, none of the three moderators at CBS 17’s studio in Raleigh asked follow up questions about how Trump’s appointee would impact voter’s lives.

The second of three debates between Tillis and Cunningham moved onto other topics including immigration, COVID-19 relief and Trump’s proposed use of U.S. troops against protestors.

The race has remained tight. In an Emerson College poll released Monday, Cunningham received 48.9% of the vote while Tillis had 43%, but 8.1% of those polled said they were undecided.

Instead of courting the undecided voters, Tillis seemed to focus on shoring up support with his conservative base. On the question of immigration and border security, Tillis said that Cunningham supported providing free heath care to 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., a claim Cunningham refuted.

“If you provide free healthcare, you can be absolutely certain that more [immigrants] are going to come across the border,” Tillis said despite Cunningham’s correction, “and they’re going to include drug traffickers.”

As he did in the first debate, Tillis criticized Cunningham for not supporting a scuttled $300 billion COVID relief package pushed by Republicans early in September.

“That bill falls short,” Cunningham said. “It cuts the unemployment benefits in half. It doesn’t provide our local governments the support they need to keep first responders, sanitation workers and police officers on the job.”

Nonetheless, Tillis claimed that the same rejected COVID-19 relief package would also address the needs of 11.3 % of North Carolina’s population that do not have health insurance by putting them back to work.

“The more people we get back to work, the more people go back to the health care they like from their jobs,” he said, failing to mention the self-employed or workers whose jobs do not provide healthcare plans.

Cunningham countered that the Republican relief package doesn’t address health care at all. Instead he proposed expanding Medicaid, which Tillis has blocked, and strengthening the Affordable Care Act, which Tillis has voted to overturn.

“Sen. Tillis is standing here on this stage tonight attacking my position because he has none,” Cunningham said.

Tillis said he supported Trump’s recommendation to use federal forces to quell demonstrations in American cities. Cunningham cited his military background before voicing opposition to the plan.

 “Our troops are trained to fight and win the nation’s wars, and the American people are not the enemy,” Cunningham said.

The candidates also discussed the future of marijuana in North Carolina.

Tillis said he was open to researching marijuana for medical purposes but he stopped short of calling for legalization.

“Marijuana is a schedule one substance under the controlled substances act,” Cunningham said. We should take it off of the federal schedule because each state wants to go in different directions.”

The evening’s most spontaneous moment came when the candidates were asked if they had smoked marijuana.

“I have, when I was a young person,” Cunningham admitted.

“Yes,” said Tillis. “When I was a kid, I was growing up in a trailer park.”