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Tillis, Cunningham battle in first Senate debate

Posted September 14, 2020 8:45 p.m. EDT
Updated September 14, 2020 8:52 p.m. EDT

— Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham came out from behind their television ads and traded blows Monday night in the first of three scheduled debates in the race for a U.S. Senate seat representing North Carolina.

The hour-long debate moderated by WRAL News anchor David Crabtree focused on the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic and the summer of protests calling for an end to systemic racism, but also included jabs by each candidate on issues such as a potential coronavirus vaccine, military spending and health care.

"We've seen a colossal failure of leadership" during the pandemic, Cunningham said, noting that government hasn't done enough to respond to the crisis and help Americans in need. "Think about what the response would have been if this were a terrorist attack or a hurricane hitting our state."

Tillis, who is seeking a second six-year term, noted that Congress came together to pass the CARES Act last spring, and he criticized Cunningham for opposing the Paycheck Protection Program that helped prop up small businesses and another relief package that passed the Senate on a party-line vote.

"He's saying something to get elected – anything to get elected," Tillis said. "You're listening, but I don't think you're acting, Cal."

Several times during the debate, Tillis threw out the names of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who serve as a couple of congressional bogeymen for Republicans, saying Cunningham's campaign was being backed by them and that he would merely fall into line with them.

Cunningham, a Raleigh lawyer who served in Iraq and later in the state Senate, countered by noting Tillis' close ties to President Donald Trump, noting that the senator even backed off his opposition last year to Trump's declaration of a national emergency to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and eventually supported the move.

"I think we have seen from him a failure of leadership that is part and parcel of the failure in Washington," Cunningham said.

Both men agreed that systemic racism exists in the U.S. and needs to be rooted out. But they disagreed on how to do that.

Tillis blasted Senate Democrats for blocking a bill that he said would fund more training for law enforcement officers, but Cunningham called the measure "a railroad job" that Republicans crafted without any outside input and brought to the Senate floor without any committee hearings.

While Tillis honed in on a tweet by Cunningham in which he expressed support for Black Lives Matter protesters calling for defunding police, Cunningham said Congress needs to look at the issue more broadly, including unequal access to health care, housing and good-paying jobs for minorities.

"Cal is taking us down a different path – or would as a U.S. senator," Tillis said. "He has broken his pledges in the past. ... I will focus on results. I will focus on the people who are struggling the most."

"There is a problem in Washington. There is a financial and a political corruption, and it's distorting how this country is run," Cunningham said. "I'm listening to North Carolinians. .... I'll make sure the voices of the people of our state are heard loud and clear in Washington."

The Senate seat has changed hands three times since the late Sen. Jesse Helms retired in 2002.

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