Healthcare and the coronavirus pandemic took center stage Monday night at the first of three debates between Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham and incumbent Republican Thom Tillis, an avowed loyalist to President Donald Trump, with Cunningham calling out the Republican administration’s “unprecedented failure of leadership.”

“We’re in the middle of a public health crisis, and yet we now have more people without access to quality, affordable health care than we did before the start of this crisis,” Cunningham said. “We were more vulnerable to this crisis because of the policies we had been pursuing as a nation before.”

With 50 days to go until the election, the candidates fielded questions about the pandemic, as well as racial justice and police brutality. The heat between the two rivals simmered tamely on Cunningham’s cold smirk and through Tillis’s scripted righteousness, but even as they exchanged jabs their similarities emerged: two finely tuned politicians with deep pockets (Cunningham has so far raised nearly $15 million to Tillis’s $14 million). 

Much of their talking points rang familiar from their TV ads: For Cunningham, it’s that Tillis is a Washington insider who prioritizes corporate interests and support for the Trump administration over voters’ concerns, while Tillis claims Cunningham will say anything to get elected and would pursue a radical agenda in office. 

Tillis, Cunningham argued, is out of touch with the needs of North Carolina residents, citing the Tillis staffer last week who told a cancer survivor asking for help with her health insurance to “figure it out.” Tillis apologized for his staffer’s actions, blaming the staffer’s remarks on his inexperience. “This is a 23-year-old kid that’s been in the office for a couple of months. He was disciplined. He made a mistake,” Tillis said, just before attempting to criticize Cunningham’s record as student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill (Cunningham was SGA president during the 1995-1996 academic year). 

Questions about the coronavirus pandemic dominated the debate’s first half. Tillis attempted to tout his work in the Senate so far, but Cunningham criticized Tillis and other Senate Republicans’ response as insufficient, calling the “skinny” stimulus bill that Republicans attempted to pass last week a party-line endeavor that failed to address key issues, including health care. Tillis swung back, accusing Cunningham of making promises he couldn’t keep. 

“That’s what Cal does. He’s saying something to get elected––anything to get elected,” Tillis said. 

Cunningham pushed back when moderator David Crabtree asked both candidates if they would receive a coronavirus vaccine developed under an accelerated timeline. Tillis said he would, praising the FDA as the “gold standard” of drug approval, but Cunningham emphasized the need to ensure integrity in the vaccine’s development. 

A rush to produce a vaccine by Election Day or by the end of the year gave Cunningham pause, criticizing potential political and financial interests that could rush a vaccine to the public without extensive trials. 

“I think we have seen entirely too many times, especially in recent years, politics intervening in what should be driven by health and science,” he said. “Traditionally I would support and have confidence in the Food and Drug Administration and the processes that they go through in order to approve a drug, but we have seen an extraordinary corruption in Washington. We have seen political and financial corruption that has intervened in and diluted and distorted decision-making in Washington D.C.”

The candidates also confronted questions about racial equality. Tillis ducked Crabtree’s prompt to define systemic racism, instead pointing to his support for the bill authored by Senate Republicans that largely leaves reforms up to state attorney generals and local police departments. Tillis also criticized a tweet from Cunningham supporting protesters in Raleigh calling to abolish the police, calling this demand “out of control.”

Cunningham responded by calling the Republican bill a “railroad job,” arguing that Republicans didn’t do enough to address issues raised by protestors. 

“It didn’t go through a hearing process. There was no discussion about how it can be amended––that’s not how you bring people together around one of the most important issues of our time,” he said. 

Cunningham, who was an attorney for the armed forces, said that both law enforcement officers and the communities they work in need more resources in order to address issues such as disparities in access to health care, housing discrimination, and education. 

“We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid crisis. We have countless thousands of North Carolinians tonight for whom law enforcement isn’t the solution, health care is,” he said. “If we were to expand Medicaid, we would be able to cover 150,000 people that are having encounters with law enforcement today––we would be able to give them the quality and affordable care that they need.”

Cunningham and Tillis will debate two more times before Election Day. The other two debates are scheduled for Sept. 22 and Oct. 1.

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