RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Sen. Thom Tillis (R) called out Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in a new digital ad released Tuesday after Cunningham said he would be “hesitant” to get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were approved before end of the year.
In the ad, the Tillis campaign accused Cunningham of “playing politics.”
The two are facing off in one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country, as the result could impact which party gets control of the chamber.
During their first debate Monday night, the two were asked about their willingness to accept the vaccine this year.
“As the senator for North Carolina, I would have a lot of questions of the FDA. I think the American people have questions,” Cunningham said.
Tillis said he has “no doubt” a vaccine will only be made available if it is indeed proven to be safe and effective.
“We are not going to release a vaccine that doesn’t have the effectiveness and safety that the gold standard of the FDA requires,” Tillis said.
The question came up as President Donald Trump has suggested a vaccine could be available by the November election, though Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that would be “unlikely.” Trump also has suggested a vaccine being available could help with his re-election prospects.
“It wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t hurt,” he said at a press conference last month. “I want it fast because I want to save a lot of lives.”
“What I’m talking about is making sure we do due diligence as a nation. We need to put public health first. We need to put science first,” Cunningham said after Monday’s debate. “If they sign off free of politics, you bet I’ll take that vaccine. I won’t hesitate.”
A poll released this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation found a majority of Americans are concerned about the role politics could play in the rollout of a vaccine.
“Many (62%) are worried that the political pressure from the Trump administration will lead the FDA to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure that it is safe and effective – including 85% of Democrats and 61% of independents. Fewer Republicans (35%) express this level of concern,” KFF wrote.
The AARP also released a poll this month of North Carolina voters. The group found that “fewer than half (42 percent) of North Carolina’s 50-plus electorate say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine and 28 percent of all respondents say they weren’t sure if they would get it.”
Meredith College political analyst David McLennan said Cunningham got himself into “hot water” with his answer.
“The way he articulated it made it seem worse than it actually was. It enabled Tillis to really go after him and really kind of claim Cunningham was kind of a conspiracy thinker,” McLennan said. “It’s gotcha politics. But, it’s fair game in this kind of environment.”
NC Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen was asked about the situation Tuesday.
“As I have watched the federal government do hard work around vaccines, I’ve been very impressed with the work that the scientists have been doing, the fact that the federal government has taken on some of the financial risks of trying to get a vaccine out quickly,” she said. “I do think there’s a lot more science left to do and research left to do and see, but I have heard personally from the career regulators at the FDA, heard about the process that they’re using, understood the safety and efficacy metrics that they’re going to be using. And I feel very comfortable right now as I hear about that process.”