RALEIGH — U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham took to the debate stage on Monday night in the first debate of statewide candidates during the general election campaign.
The hour-long debate, held in Raleigh, featured heavy discussion on the coronavirus pandemic. Tillis accused Cunningham’s company of applying for Paycheck Protection Program money while attacking the same program on the campaign trail.
But it was Cunningham’s response on whether he would take a vaccine for COVID-19 that raised many eyebrows during — and after — the debate.
“As the senator from North Carolina, I would have a lot of questions of the FDA. I think the American people have questions,” Cunningham said.
When pressed by the moderator if he would be hesitant to take a vaccine approved by the end of the year, Cunningham said he would be.
“Yes, I would be hesitant. But I would ask a lot questions,” Cunningham said. He then criticized campaign donations to Tillis and said Washington needed reform.
Tillis immediately responded, saying that, “We just heard a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine. That is irresponsible.”
“We are not going to release a vaccine that doesn’t have the effectiveness and safety the gold standard of the FDA requires,” Tillis added. “In the middle of a crisis, you don’t undermine an effective process (the FDA) or shorten the line of people who desperately need the vaccine. That statement puts lives at risk, and it makes it more difficult to manage the crisis he says he’s up to the task to manage.”
Cunningham continued after Tillis’ comments, again saying he would question the process.
At the end of the exchange, Tillis said he trusted Dr. Fauci, like Cunningham said he did, adding, “Cal’s a trial lawyer. He’s not a doctor; he’s not a scientist; he’s not an epidemiologist. This is not a time to cast doubt on the most reputable organization in the world when it comes to drug and vaccine approval, and that’s the FDA.”
Post-debate, Congressman Dr. Greg Murphy (R-03) said on Twitter, “I am a physician and if a vaccine is approved, I will be first in line to take it. @CalforNC (Cunningham) is a political fear mongerer.”
Washington, D.C.-based reporters also noted the exchange, with The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim saying, “Wow – Cunningham indicates he won’t take a coronavirus vaccine if one is made available: ‘I’ve got questions’ because he’s seen ‘politics intervening in what should be driven by health and science.’ ‘Yes, I would be hesitant.’”
“Cal Cunningham made clear last night that he has no serious solutions to the COVID-19 crisis and is only interested in attempting to exploit it for political gain,” said Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo. “The extreme liberal positions on the virus he articulated during the debate were just the latest examples of how he will say anything to get elected and will side with Chuck Schumer over the interests of North Carolinians every time.”
In the latter half of the debate, the focus shifted to the current tensions between protesters and law enforcement. Tillis said that Cunningham stood with protesters who seek to defund the police, while he stood with law enforcement and common-sense reforms like the bill proposed by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. Senate Democrats blocked the bill proposed by Scott, a black Republican, from being debated on the Senate floor.
Cunningham tweeted following Aug. 29’s protests in Raleigh that, “Those who’ve taken to the streets to peacefully exercise your fundamental rights: I see you, hear you & join you in the fight to bring systemic change. Those who instead destroy property cross a line, do wrong & are distracting from our effort to bring real, much-needed reform.”
North Carolina Republican Party chairman Michael Whatley congratulated Tillis on his debate performance, saying, “Cal Cunningham confirmed that he is a full-fledged member of the radical left wing mob, while Senator Tillis was able to highlight his solid record of cutting taxes, serving NC soldiers and military families, working with President Trump and defending the police.”
Polls in the race have shown Cunningham with a slight lead, with the RealClearPolitics average showing Cunningham at 47% and Tillis at 43%. The two candidates are set for two more debates, though Tillis was on record pushing for as many as 10 debates following the primary campaigns.