Tillis, Cunningham square off in second US Senate debate; address vacant Supreme Court seat, marijuana legalization

Tillis-Cunningham Debate

RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — Sen. Thom Tillis (R) and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham took part in the second North Carolina Senate race debate on Tuesday night in Raleigh.

The candidates tackled big topics, such as the vacant Supreme Court seat, COVID-19 relief and marijuana legalization.

Tillis supported pushing through with a new justice prior to the election, while Cunningham preferred waiting until after Americans cast their votes in November.

On the topic of COVID-19 relief both sparred over GOP- and Democrat-backed bills.

Tillis, when addressing marijuana, expressed support for researching its medical benefits but stopped short of supporting legalization. Cunningham said he felt marijuana should be removed from the federal controlled substances schedule.

The debate, hosted by CBS 17, pitted incumbent Tillis against former state Senator Cunningham.

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

A new NC Nexstar Media/Emerson College poll shows Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham with a lead over incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R) in the North Carolina Senate race.

Monday’s poll asked voters for whom they would cast their vote in the North Carolina Senate race if the election were held today.

Cunningham received 48.9 percent while Tillis had 43 percent.

A total of 8.1 percent of those polled said they were undecided.

FOX8’s Bob Buckley and CBS 17’s Marius Payton and Angela Taylor moderated the debate.

Opening Remarks

In his opening remarks, Tillis spoke to his humble beginnings and said Cunningham “has been running for office since his college days” and “will say anything to get elected.”

Cunningham spoke of his value for public service in church, the Boy Scouts and the Army. He also said Tillis has a “failed record in Washington.”

Supreme Court

The debate questions opened with the topic of the open Supreme Court seat following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death.

Tillis was asked about pushing forward with a Supreme Court nominee before the election. In 2016, Tillis wrote an op-ed saying voters should have a say.

Tillis said he supports President Donald Trump deserves to send forth a nominee. He said he plans to hear them in the judiciary committee and move for passage on the floor. He also said Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would support a radical left justice.

Cunningham was asked whether Trump should nominate a justice right now just as President Barack Obama did in 2016.

Cunningham said he believes the justice should be selected by the next president after voters have their say in November.

“Senator Tillis wants to rush into a partisan process,” Cunningham said.

Tillis was asked whether he would request Trump nominate North Carolinian Allison Rushing. She is believed to be on the president’s shortlist.

Tillis said Rushing would be a great candidate for the vacant seat but said there are others on the president’s shortlist he would fully support.

Cunningham was asked whether he thinks Biden should release his Supreme Court nominees.

Cunningham again said he wants to see the next justice be chosen after the election but did not directly answer the question.

Healthcare and COVID-19 relief

The debate then pivoted to the most recent GOP coronavirus relief bill. Cunningham was asked why he would not support the bill.

Cunningham said the bill was designed not to solve North Carolina’s problems but to solve Tillis’ problems and said the bill “falls short” for the citizens of North Carolina.

Tillis was asked what is wrong with the Democratic stance on federal stimulus needs. Democrats are pushing for a much larger package.

Tillis replied that the GOP bill would help U.S. citizens and said funding for education was added beyond the Democratic proposal. He also noted it would extend unemployment benefits.

11.3 percent of North Carolina’s population does not have health insurance, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau stats. Both candidates were asked for one specific proposal they’d support to help get insurance for more people.

Tillis said one proposal would be to pass the COVID-19 relief package. He said Cunningham supports Medicare for all, saying it would kick people off the health care they like with their jobs. He said Medicare for all would “bankrupt the country.”

Cunningham said he does not support Medicare for all and said the current proposed GOP COVID-19 relief measure does not address health care. He said he supports building onto the Affordable Care Act.

Police reform

In recent tweets, both candidates have pushed for police reform. Tillis and Cunningham were asked what their view of police reform looks like.

Cunningham said he is proud to have worked with law enforcement and noted he sat as the vice-chair of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Crime Commission.

He said he plans to invest new resources in law enforcement to help law enforcement modernize and abolish certain practices such as chokeholds.

Tillis noted multiple law enforcement groups have endorsed him and criticized Cunningham, saying he voted in the North Carolina State Senate to cut law enforcement budgets.

In the wake of recent riots in U.S. cities, the candidates were asked if they believe federal forces should be used to quell protests and riots.

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

He said troops should not be used to address protests.

Tillis said if a governor or a mayor asks for help, the president should provide help. He said Cunningham has not taken a position on Portland, Chicago and Seattle and said the mayors of those cities are failing their people.

National debt

Tillis and Cunningham were then asked whether the national debt of $26 trillion is something the next Congress needs to deal with. 

In a yes or no question, both replied yes.

Tillis said Cunningham wants to raise taxes to work on the debt and said debt is cut by lowering taxes.

Cunningham said part of the problem is Tillis backed a tax bill “that paid out massive sums of money to the wealthiest people in America and the largest corporations.”

Tillis countered that the first thing to do “is get spending in line and get the economy back on track.”

Cunningham said he wants to expand the earned income tax credit for North Carolinians and expand the child tax credit.

HBCUs

With North Carolina being home to 10 historically black colleges and universities, the candidates were asked if they would support help with funding HBCUs.

Cunningham said HBCUs are important to North Carolina and said he would join the HBCU Caucus if he gets to Washington. He said he intends to be an advocate for HBCUs.

Tillis said he meets with the HBCUs every year in Washington and noted that the current Congress got long-term permanent funding for HBCUs.

Marijuana

A new poll from NC Nexstar Media and Emerson College Polling shows North Carolinians overwhelmingly approve medical marijuana and support recreational usage. The candidates were asked where they stand on marijuana.

Tillis said dating back to his time in the State House, he supported researching marijuana for medical purposes but does not support the federal legalization of marijuana.

Cunningham said marijuana should be taken off the federal schedule, noting it is a schedule I substance currently. He said if the state chooses to go forward with legalization, it should be regulated in a similar way to alcohol.

Asked had they tried marijuana, Tillis replied, “Yes, when I was a kid, I was growing up in a trailer park,” with a smile. Cunningham said he also tried marijuana when he was a younger man.

Candidates questions each other

Given the opportunity to ask each other a question, Tills said Cunningham has gotten $80 million from Sen. Chuck Schumer and asked if he supports expanding the Supreme Court, while Cunningham asked Tillis why Tillis was the top recipient of pharmaceutical PAC money last year and what they were getting from him.

Tillis fired back what they got from him recently was the Pricing Transparency Bill.

Cunningham said Tillis is opposed to bipartisan legislation that would bring down the cost of prescription drugs.

Cunningham said he does not support expanding the Supreme Court.

Mask usage

Pivoting back to the subject of the pandemic, both candidates were asked if they believe there should be a national mask mandate.

Tillis said there are mask mandates across the country and said the reality is that the nation needs a vaccine. He criticized Cunningham for being hesitant to take a vaccine. He did not directly address whether or not he supports a national mask mandate.

Cunningham said he does support a national mask mandate. He said when medical professionals signed off on the efficacy of a vaccine he would take it and encourage others to take it. He said politics are being injected into science.

Renaming military bases

On the subject of renaming military bases, both candidates were asked where they stand on renaming bases like Fort Bragg.

Cunningham said he does believe bases named after people who fought for the Confederacy should be renamed. He noted his military history, saying he served at Fort Bragg.

Tillis said voices should weigh in and go through a methodical process to determine whether bases should be renamed. He said renaming bases shouldn’t be rushed.

Immigration and border security

There are some 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Tillis and Cunningham were asked what should be done to secure borders and keep track of who is in the country.

Tillis said the country needs people, technology and infrastructure to do the job and stem the tide of people illegally crossing the border. He said he supports more border crossings in the legal way.

Cunningham said it requires much more than physical barriers. He said part of the process is to “fix a broken immigration system.”

Both were again asked, as they were in the first debate, if they felt confident in mail-in voting and both said they did.

In the first debate, 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’d 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.

The two also addressed voting during the pandemic, with both saying they trusted mail-in voting.

Tillis won his seat in Congress in 2014, defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan with 48.8 percent of the vote to Hagan’s 47.3 percent.

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