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Sen. Tillis fights to retain seat

Sen. Thom Tillis. Sen. Thom Tillis.

There are few races in North Carolina this cycle that hold more consequence than that for the United States Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Thom Tillis. 

Of the 100 seats in the United States Senate, 53 are currently held by Republicans, and 45 are held by Democrats. Two independent senators, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, both caucus with Democrats, giving Republicans the slim but sufficient majority they used to stymie impeachment last winter, and to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, in the coming weeks. 

There are 35 Senate seats up for grabs this year; 12 are held by Democrats, but only two are listed as “competitive” races by The Washington Post. Republicans hold 23 of those seats, of which 12 — including that of Sen. Tillis — are considered competitive. 

With the House of Representatives firmly under Democratic control — as it will likely remain after Election Day — Democrats are now hoping to capture the Senate in order to hedge against a possible victory by President Trump. Controlling both the House and the Senate would effectively tie Trump’s hands on major issues and reopen avenues to his impeachment and removal from office. 

Tillis easily survived a Primary Election challenge but has angered some of his Republican base, who don’t think he’s quite conservative enough. That’s made him the underdog, despite his incumbency and Trump’s endorsement. He’s trailed in polls since at least June. 

That being said, a victory by his challenger, Democrat Cal Cunningham, would still be considered an upset and would add to the likelihood of Dems taking the Senate in November. 

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Conversely, Republicans are desperate to prevent that from happening, and Tillis’ seat is as important as any in the fight to maintain a hedge of their own in the legislative branch, especially if Trump loses. 

Cunningham was given multiple opportunities to answer questions posed by The Smoky Mountain News over a period of more than three weeks, but was unable to find 20 minutes to talk to the voters of Western North Carolina. He failed to make himself available for a previously scheduled phone call on Oct. 2, and a campaign spokesman said on Oct. 5 that Cunningham — who’s recently come under fire for sexting a political consultant who is not his wife — would not make himself available for questions. 

When asked why, no response was given, however Sen. Tillis, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and the Committee on the Judiciary, availed himself of the opportunity prior to his COVID-19 diagnosis.

Smoky Mountain News: From the perspective of a United States Senator, what’s the most important issue facing North Carolina today? 

Thom Tillis: Obviously the health care threat is something that we have to keep an eye on, but I think the longer-term consequences of continued shutdown — schools being shut down — when we believe that there’s a safe way to reopen, it’s a key issue. That’s why I voted for the follow-up to this CARES Act, because we’ve got a cliff that we’re going to run over for unemployment benefits. For businesses out in the mountain areas in particular, some of the travel and tourism businesses that were first in, they’re going to be last out. 

I’ve voted for the bill and Cal Cunningham said he would have voted against it. I think it’s really continuing to maintain capacity for people who are affected with COVID, but we’ve got a lot of victims of COVID who never got the virus. We’ve got to recognize that opening is a key part of getting rid of social isolation. [We’re] seeing an increase in suicides and an increase in domestic violence and child abuse. I’m not saying that all of the increases are related to COVID, but it really started spiking when COVID started spiking. 

SMN: During your first debate, Cunningham made some headlines he may not have anticipated, about his hesitancy to take a coronavirus vaccine. What was it that surprised you about his response? 

TT: To be honest with you, that was not even a position that I anticipated when I was preparing for the debate.

I mean, for Cal Cunningham to go on stage and say that he would be hesitant to take the vaccine, I mean, that’s an insult to the nearly 100,000 people who are enrolled in clinical trials right now. These are people who are willing to take the vaccine, half get placebos, half get the vaccine and go through those trials. So that was an insult to them. And it’s also an insult to the gold standard for drug approval, the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies and the research institutions like Chapel Hill and Wake Forest, that are involved in clinical trials. 

What he basically says is he doesn’t have confidence in Chapel Hill, Wake Forest and the scientific community, they’re not going to release the vaccine until it’s safe. So it’s an insult to people in the clinical trials, it’s undermining the credibility of world-renowned institutions and it could take people away from being willing to take the vaccine when we need 60 percent of the population to either have immunity from getting the virus and recovering, or by taking a vaccine. I thought it was irresponsible. I know he tried to walk it back like he does so many things. He’s against something before he’s for it. What he did was irresponsible. 

SMN: How do you feel about the president’s handling of the Coronavirus Pandemic? 

TT: I think the president took a very important step implementing the travel ban from Wuhan and from China. Early on, he was criticized for it. Nancy Pelosi, six weeks, seven weeks later was still saying, ‘Chinatown is open in San Francisco.’ [New York City Mayor Bill] DeBlasio was saying ‘New York’s open for business.’ This is the first of its kind in our lifetimes. We haven’t had a pandemic for a hundred years. I use the comparison of a governor responding to a hurricane, and it’s every bit as unpredictable as a hurricane. You’re going to make one decision that proves to be not the best one. You make another decision, but the last thing anybody should be doing is criticizing any leader of any political affiliation at this time. 

When we had the ventilator shortage, the president mobilized the Defense Production Act. He used that several times for personal protective equipment. The administration drove the project at warp speed to try and get a vaccine done in record time. Beginning in October, we’re going to be up to about 50 million test capacity a month, and that will spike up to 100 million. You’ve got to look at the whole. You can pick any one thing that in retrospect or in hindsight you may have done differently but that’s what’s wrong with some of the positions Cunningham took, to criticize the president for doing the travel ban. 

SMN: Perhaps the biggest difference between the two of you is experience, specifically in foreign policy. Can a challenger come in to the Senate and be prepared to deal with that aspect of American government?

TT: There are a lot of positions that make me think that he’s not qualified, but foreign policy or national security is probably first among them, which is shocking for someone who served in the Army Reserves. I mean, for Cal Cunningham to criticize President Trump for taking out General [Quasem] Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Quds force — responsible for hundreds of deaths in Iraq — for [Cunningham] to literally go to the till … 

I saw an ad I hadn’t seen before saying that I would be soft on Russia and Russian bounties when the head of Central Command, a four-star Marine general, said there’s no credible evidence and that they’re continuing to look at it [and] if there is, they have to be held accountable. [Cunningham] is supporting [former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe] Biden, who has been weak on China. He’s supporting Biden who when he was in the [Obama] administration was weak on NATO, not having them pay their fair share. I think there’s a whole lot of reasons — it’s either inexperience, or it’s even worse than that. Let’s say that he does have the experience, and he’s still taking these extreme positions. 

SMN: If foreign policy is among most important differences between you and your opponent, what’s the next most important one?

TT: I think it comes down to Cal Cunningham’s track record. When you’re running for the state Senate and you make a pledge not to raise taxes, and then you turn around and months later after you’re elected you raise taxes by a billion dollars at the height of a recession. I made a pledge if we got a majority at the height of the recession, that we were going to cut taxes. Cal Cunningham’s talking about supporting the Green New Deal. That’s increasing taxes, increasing regulations at a time when businesses are struggling. Cal will say anything to get elected and then he turns around breaks pledges and breaks promises. And I haven’t. Look at my record. Any pledge I’ve made, any promise I’ve made, I fulfilled it when I was speaker [of the N.C. House] and I went up to Washington and I did the same thing.


Meet the candidates

Cal Cunningham

• Age: 46

• Residence: Wake County

• Occupation: Attorney, VP and general counsel of a recycling company

• Political experience: Former state senator, unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2010

Thom Tillis

• Age: 59

• Residence: Huntersville

• Occupation: Tech/insurance consultant

• Political experience: Four-term N.C. House rep, first-term U.S. Senator


Tillis announces positive COVID-19 test

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis announced last week that he’d tested positive for coronavirus, joining President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and several other prominent legislative-branch Republicans in sharing the diagnosis. 

On Oct. 2, Tillis said via Twitter that he felt good and had experienced no symptoms. He also issued the following statement:

Over the last few months, I’ve been routinely tested for COVID-19, including testing negative last Saturday, but tonight my rapid antigen test came back positive. I will be following the recommendations of my doctor and will be self-isolating at home for 10 days and notifying those I’ve been in close contact with. Thankfully, I have no symptoms and I feel well. As we all know, COVID-19 is a very contagious and deadly virus, especially because many carriers are asymptomatic. I encourage all North Carolinians to follow the recommendations of medical experts, including wearing a mask, washing hands, and practicing social distancing. For any North Carolinian who believes they were exposed to the virus or starts to display symptoms, please call your doctor, self-isolate, and get tested to protect those around you.

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