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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Sen. Thom Tillis (R) and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham participated in their first debate Monday night in Raleigh amid the North Carolina Senate race.

The debate, hosted by WRAL News, pitted incumbent Tillis against former state Senator Cunningham

Tillis, former speaker of the North Carolina House, is seeking his second term in Congress. Cunningham, a U.S. Army Reserve veteran, is looking to flip the seat.

The two sparred over the COVID-19 pandemic – something Tillis blamed on China – for more than the first quarter of the debate.

Cunningham criticized what he said was Tillis’ lack of action following early briefings on the pandemic.

On the subject of a COVID-19 vaccine, Cunningham said he’s be hesitant on anything sent to the public before the end of the year. Tillis was confident the FDA wouldn’t approve anything that wasn’t safe.

“We are not going to release a vaccine that the gold standard of the FDA doesn’t require,” Tillis said.

Cunningham said he would be hesitant to take the vaccine if it was approved before the end of the year, something Tillis pounced on, calling it “irresponsible.”

Cunningham said political and financial influence has been too involved in the vaccine process while also mentioning Tillis has taken more than $400,000 from pharmaceutical companies.

Cunningham said under normal circumstances – he would have no question about the safety concerning a vaccine.

Throughout the debate, Tillis said Cunningham was willing to say anything to get elected. A little more than half way through the debate, Cunningham went on the offensive concerning the comment, saying the senator flip-flopped on issues consistently.

Cunningham provided an example of what an op-ed in the Washington Post said was an “Olympic Gold flip-flop” by Tillis.

After nearly 40 minutes of debate over COVID-19-related topics, the conversation shifted to systemic racism and the current movement for equality and the absentee voting.

Tillis said he plans to take part in absentee voting while Cunningham said it was important to him to utilize an early voting site – something he did in February with his daughter for the primaries.

Both said they fully trust mail-in voting.

The two will debate again Sept. 22 at the CBS 17 studios in Raleigh.

Following the debate, CBS 17 hosted an analysis from April Dawson, associate dean and law professor at North Carolina Central University, and Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.

CBS 17’s Russ Bowen asked both what the candidates should work on for next week’s debate.

Dawson said Tillis is in a tough situation with shoring up his base while Cunningham should do more of the same next week.

Kokai Cunningham needs to avoid the forced anecdotes while Tillis needs to force negatives upon Cunningham.

Tillis needs to get the audience to question Cunningham, Kokai said.

Dawson hopes there are time limits next week to allow an expansion on topics such as education and the economy.

Read more about the CBS 17 North Carolina Senate Debate

In addition to taking questions from the moderator and panelists, the candidates will respond to questions from local voters regarding issues that impact their local communities.  

Viewers can follow the debate and related content on social media using the hashtag #ncsenatedebate

U.S. Senate Debate – North Carolina” will be followed by “Post Debate Live” at 8 p.m., a continuing one-hour live broadcast with post-debate analysis, in-depth interviews with the candidates and reaction from the community to this important political event. 

The U.S. Senate Debate will be carried on the following stations and websites:

In addition to the live television broadcast, viewers may also access a livestream of the Senate Debate by visiting their local participating Nexstar station’s website.