In First Tillis-Cunningham Debate, COVID-19 Vaccination Takes Center Stage

Sep 14, 2020

Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham were asked a hypothetical question during their first debate Monday night: If a COVID vaccine arrives before Election Day, would they take it? Would they encourage others to do so?

Yes, said Tillis. As long as it was approved by the FDA, which he called the “gold standard” of safety.

Cunningham said he "has questions."

“And I think we have seen entirely too many times and especially in recent years (where) politics is intervening in what should be driven by health and science,” Cunningham, an attorney and former state senator who is challenging Tillis.

He pointed to the Trump administration not heeding recommendations from the CDC.

“Historically and traditionally, I would support and have confidence in the Food and Drug Administration and the processes they go through to approve a drug,” he said. “But we have seen an extraordinary corruption in Washington.”

Moderator David Crabtree of WRAL then asked Cunningham about the vaccine again.

“So do I read you to say you would be hesitant to receive the vaccine if it were approved by the end of the year?” he asked.

“Yes I would be hesitant,” Cunningham said. “But I’m going to ask a lot of questions.”

Cunningham’s comments were similar to what Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris said last week.

Tillis said Cunningham was putting lives at risk.

“We just heard a candidate for the U.S. Senate look into the camera and tell 10 million North Carolinians he would be hesitant to take a vaccine,” said Tillis, a first-term Republican senator from Cornelius. “That’s irresponsible.”

In an interview after the debate, Cunningham walked back his earlier statements on the vaccine. He said any vaccine needs to go through “due diligence” and that health professionals sign off on it, he won’t hesitate to take it.

“The point that I'm making is that we need to go through that due diligence,” Cunningham said after the debate. “We need to make sure that our public health professionals, our medical professionals, the FDA, and the professionals and scientists there sign off in this. If they sign off, free of politics, then I'll take that vaccine. I won't hesitate. My family won't. We'll make sure that it gets deployed.”

This was the first of three planned debates.

Tillis tried to portray Cunningham as someone who will say whatever it takes to please different Democratic constituencies, including Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer.

Cunningham countered by saying Tillis changes his positions because he’s afraid of being criticized by President Trump. He cited the senator’s initial opposition to Trump’s plan for an emergency declaration to help pay for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

“Just days later, walked on the floor of the United States Senate and did what the Fayetteville Obsever said was an OIympic gold medal flip-flop,” Cunningham said.

Both were asked to define systemic racism – and whether it exists in the U.S.

“I think throughout history we have had examples of systemic racism,” Tillis said.

He pointed to the state’s program of forced sterilization last century. As speaker of the state House, Tillis said he led an effort to pay restitution to the victims.

“Thousands of people were forcibly sterilized, the majority were African American,” he said. “And these voices were being heard when Cal was in the state Senate. I guess he didn’t listen.”

Tillis then pivoted to the Black Lives Matter protests that he says have gone too far, with some chanting abolish the police during a protest in Raleigh.

“While they were protesting, Cal Cunningham tweeted, ‘I join you in the fight.’ ”

Cunningham said systemic racism shows up in education, housing and it “shows up in health care in the midst of this crisis when North Carolina is 22% African American but almost 40% of the COVID diagnoses because of inequities in access to health care.”

He says his campaign calls out people who are violent during protests, but “we need to hear the voices of people who are angry. And are hurt. And are calling out for reform. And those are the voices that I’ve gone out to hear. My wife and I went out and we marched in the streets of Raleigh. You know who we marched with? The sheriff of Wake County.”

Towards the end of the debate, both candidates were asked whether they trust mail voting. President Trump has repeatedly made unsubstantiated claims that Democrats are pushing mail voting to cheat.

Both said they trust mail voting.

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