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Follow the latest news and information about voting and the 2020 election, including essential information about how to vote during a pandemic and more.

Tillis, Cunningham Clash Over Supreme Court Pick

Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, left, and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham debated for the second time Tuesday night.

Four years ago, Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis said the Senate should not confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court because it was too close to the election.

At a Fayetteville rally with the president Saturday night, Tillis said he would vote for Trump’s nominee to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat even though the election is a little more than a month away.

Tuesday night’s debate began with that apparent contradiction. The moderator asked:

“Mr. Tillis, is this a flip-flop?”

Tillis responded:

“President Obama was a lame-duck President on his way out the door. What we’re talking about now is the role I play in the U.S. Senate. It’s called advise and consent. President Trump deserves to send forward the nominee. I intend to hear him in the Judiciary Committee and then move for passage on the floor.”

The first-term Republican then attacked his opponent, Democrat Cal Cunningham. He asked him whether former Vice President Joe Biden should release a list of his possible Supreme Court nominees.

“Joe Biden won’t issue a list, and I wonder whether Cal thinks he should,” Tillis said. “And Joe Biden would support radical, left, activist judges that would be wrong for this country.”

Cunningham didn’t answer whether Biden should release a list.

Tillis also asked Cunningham whether he would support increasing the size of the Supreme Court, as some Democrats have suggested in response to the Senate filling Ginbsburg's seat this year.

“I don’t, and Justice Ginsburg herself said nine justices was the right number,” Cunningham said. “And that is the right number for our country. And rather than to continue to inject partisanship into our federal bench — let me be clear I’m speaking to some of the voices in my own party now — we need to stop injecting partisanship into our federal courts.”

And he cast Tillis as someone beholden to the president.

“There is an important role for a United States senator as a check and balance on the president of the United States,” he said. “Rather than act as a check and balance, Sen. Tillis has written a blank check to the president. He has forfeited his right to independent judgment here on behalf of the people of our state.”

There were other issues, such as whether there should be a national mandate that people wear face coverings.

Tillis pivoted away from that question, criticizing Cunningham for his comments at last week’s debate that he would be hesitant to take a vaccine that was approved before Election Day.

“Cal Cunningham got on stage last night (sic) and undermined our efforts to end this virus,” he said. “It starts by wearing masks. And it ends by having a vaccine available to everybody that senators will step up and say, 'I’ll get it just after the most vulnerable get it.'”

But Tillis didn’t answer whether he would support a mask mandate.

“So, you agree with a national mask mandate in public? Yes or no?” the moderator asked.

Tillis said “the state mandates are only part of the problem. At the end of the day ... we need to have people understand that wearing a mask is critically important."

Cunningham said he’s in favor of a mask mandate and, unlike in the first debate, he made it clear he would take a vaccine.

"I trust doctors, and I trust public health professionals," Cunningham said. "And when they sign off on the efficacy and the strength, the effectiveness and the safety of a vaccine, you better bet I'm going to take it." 

The second debate covered a broad range of topics, including some off the wall, like whether the candidates had smoked marijuana. They both said yes.

They were asked whether Fort Bragg, named for Confederate Gen.Braxton Bragg, should be renamed.

Cunningham said yes. Tillis said the people should decide, and then said the movement to rename monuments and buildings has gone too far.

"What's going on now is it started with maybe some of these bases nad now we have the same people escalating it like they're doing everything," Tillis said. "The 'abolish the police' people now want to say the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial should be renamed, too." 

When talking about health care, Tillis also said incorrectly that Cunningham is for "Medicare for all." Cunningham has been consistent in saying he wants to expand the Affordable Care Act instead.

The final Tillis-Cunningham debate is Oct. 1.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.