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Supreme Court, Vaccines, Police Likely On Tap In Second Cunningham-Tillis Debate

Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham held their first debate last week.

Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis will face off against Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham Tuesday night in the rivals' second debate. 

WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry with a preview of the debate. 

Marshall Terry: Steve, over the weekend Tillis said that he supports moving with President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so I assume this will be front and center in tonight’s debate.

Steve Harrison: So, right, this is what everyone is talking about. And let’s back up for a moment. Tillis issued a statement over the weekend saying that he would support moving forward with a replacement for Ginsburg. And then at the president’s rally in Fayetteville (on Satudray), he said the same thing, with gusto.

Thom Tillis (recording): “The president has a responsibility and the authority to nominate a justice. I had all the press try to swarm me when I was coming up here but I thought I would tell you all first. As a member of the judiciary committee, I’ve seen the list of justices. He’s going to nominate one of those justices, and I’m going to vote for their confirmation.”

Harrison: That’s what the senator said now, but in this case there was also a then. Here is Tillis speaking in February 2016, just after Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

Tillis (recording): “This election year is especially important. In addition to electing our next president, the American people will have an opportunity to have their say in who should be our next Supreme Court justice. This is a rare opportunity to let people determine the composition of the highest court in the land.”

Harrison: Republicans have said the situations are different because Obama was a lame-duck president.

Terry: And what is Cunningham saying about the confirmation?

Harrison: This is interesting. Cunningham’s campaign put a news release yesterday talking about the SCOTUS pick, but it wasn’t about Tillis changing his position. It was about the threat that a new conservative justice would likely pose to the Affordable Care Act.

And that’s been the standard Democratic playbook for years, and it’s what worked in 2018. Run on health care, health care and more health care. Maybe the Cunningham campaign will try and challenge Tillis on that reversal, but they seem to be still trying to convince some Trump supporters that Tillis isn’t their guy.

There are a lot of Trump voters who support Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, and Cunningham is trying to get those voters in his camp. And reminding them that Tillis is being loyal to the president, that might not be their best play.

And staying with the court pick, is Tillis going to press Cunningham on whether he supports the idea of expanding the court if the Democrats win the presidency and Senate? Some leading Democrats like Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts have said that’s on the table.

Terry: So, let’s go back to last week’s debate. The headline a week ago was about Cunningham saying he would be “hesitant” to take a COVID-19 vaccine that was approved before Election Day. Will that come up again?

Harrison: I think Tillis certainly wants it to. His campaign quickly released a digital campaign last week contrasting what Cunningham said about the possible vaccine to comments that Dr. Anthony Fauci has made about it. Immediately after the debate, Cunningham clarified – or walked-back – his comments about the vaccine and said he would take it. But I think Tillis is going to drag the issue back up tonight, even if neither candidate is asked about it.

Terry: And so what else are you expecting to see this evening?

Harrison: I think it will be interesting to see if Cunningham tries to press Tillis more on the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19. Last week, Cunningham never brought up the president’s comments to Bob Woodward about him deliberately playing down the threat of the coronavirus. 

Cunningham did bring up Tillis switching his position on the emergency declaration to pay for the border wall, trying to remind conservatives that Tillis hasn’t always been with them.

And expect to see Tillis talk more about law and order. He received another police-related endorsement Monday, this time from the Fraternal Order of the Police. He portrays himself as the "back the blue" candidate and will try and tie Cunningham to the sometimes-violent protests this summer that have continued... in some cities.

Terry: You can watch tonight’s debate on Fox 46 in Charlotte.