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Opinion: Did the NC Senate Race Debates Matter?

A presidency on the precipice, a nation on the brink

Within hours of the conclusion of the third and final NC Senate race debate between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and his Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, the debates suddenly seemed obsolete, a quaint vestige of democracy outstripped by the onrush of events. 

Within two days, Tillis tested positive for the coronavirus, Cunningham was caught in a “sexting” scandal (quotes because the texts were more flirtatious than anything), President Trump had checked into Walter Reed hospital after contracting COVID-19, and the virus had swept through the Republican Party after a ceremony for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett turned into a super-spreader circle jerk.

It’s an almost biblical string of disasters, fraught with irony: Plague and pestilence is presided over by an afflicted president who had previously called the virus a hoax while deriding safety measures like masks and social distancing.

Throw in the fire and brimstone of the forest conflagrations out west, and you have an apocalyptic trifecta.

So did the three NC Senate race debates beginning on Sept. 14 and concluding on Oct. 1 even matter in this whiplash-inducing political environment?

The answer is yes, because unlike the Proud Boys’ masturbatory fantasy of the first, and most likely only, presidential debate, these three match-ups told voters exactly where the two major parties stand in a time of sustained crisis.

Remember that this contest is vitally important, not just for North Carolina’s future but for the country’s as well. A Cunningham win could give Democrats control of the Senate, which a Biden administration will need if it hopes to turn campaign promises into policy.

Starting with the first NC Senate race debate, each candidate painted their opponent as a party apparatchik, a rubber-stamping yes man. Tillis claimed Cunningham supported the Green New Deal, defunding the police and Medicare for All — scary “socialist” policies that would acknowledge climate change, police brutality and the fact that 11.3% of North Carolina’s population do not have health insurance.

Tillis’ charges proved untrue. Cunningham presented himself as a moderate who opposes parts of the Green New Deal, supports strengthening the Affordable Care Act and wants police departments held accountable for their actions.

Cal Cunningham
Cal Cunningham (Photo by Grayson Barnette)

Cunningham came closer to hitting a bullseye when he criticized Tillis’ refusal to expand Medicaid in North Carolina while voting repeatedly in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Both of these charges are true.

Throughout all three NC Senate race debates, Cunningham painted Tillis as an example of systemic corruption and big-money influence that is crippling the government’s ability to function.

Cunningham’s claims were on target. Tillis ranked first in Congress for 2019 campaign donations from political action committees tied to drug corporations, and he has opposed his own party’s proposal to bring drug costs down.

Tillis claimed that Cunningham was an opportunist who would say anything to get elected, but Cunningham’s supposed opportunism came across more as accepting nuance.

When asked in the first debate, held at Raleigh TV station WRAL, why he opposed a Republican COVID-19 relief package that was defeated by a 52-47 vote, he said it didn’t go far enough to help the people of North Carolina.

When debate moderator David Crabtree asked why the Democrats didn’t accept a stripped-down relief plan instead of nothing, Cunningham patiently explained that bills frequently come to the Senate dead on arrival. Each party shoots for more than they want, so that Republicans and Democrats are forced to compromise to pass legislation. (That democratic process no longer happens with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell in charge of the chamber. He simply refuses to bring bills to the floor for debate.) 

Here the mainstream media debate moderators seemed to be carrying water for the Republican Party.

It fell to Cunningham to explain how a bill becomes a law to a professional journalist who should be familiar with the process.

Similarly, in the second debate, held at CBS 17’s Raleigh studio, an opening montage included shots of demonstrations to depict the issue of police brutality and overreach, but the narrator’s voiceover cast the issue as “keeping streets safe.”

One of the starkest differences between the two candidates concerned the use of force to stifle protest.

Chillingly, Tillis said he fully supports Trump’s recommendation to use federal forces to quell demonstrations in American cities. Cunningham, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, opposed the plan.

“Our troops are trained to fight and win the nation’s wars, and the American people are not the enemy,” Cunningham said.

Over the course of the three NC Senate race debates, Tillis gradually walked back his support of voting rights. In the first debate, he advocated vote-by-mail, saying he had cast his ballot that way himself. But then Tillis seemed to be parroting unfounded claims by Trump when he made a distinction between “good” voting by mail (North Carolina’s cumbersome absentee ballot system, which requires a witness to sign) and bad voting-by-mail (when blue states like Washington mail ballots to every registered voter).

By the third debate, Tillis was voicing concerns about changes the North Carolina State Board of Elections had unanimously approved that would make it easier for people to fix their ballots while granting an extension for ballots to arrive after Election Day. 

But the biggest difference between the candidates and their parties emerged in the first debate when the candidates were asked about health care.

Cunningham told the story of cancer survivor Bev Veals of Carolina Beach, who called Tillis’ office because she was worried about losing her health insurance. An office staffer told Veals she would have to figure out her problems herself, likening acquiring health insurance to shopping for a dress shirt.

He essentially told Veals to drop dead.

Thom Tillis
N.C. Senator Thom Tillis Photo by Gage Skidmore

Tillis replied that the staffer had been disciplined, but not fired.

When it came time to outline the Republican healthcare plan, it became apparent why the staffer was still on Tillis’ payroll; the callous employee was simply telling the truth.

Tillis backtracked to the rejected Republican COVID-19 relief package, saying it would have addressed the needs of uninsured people by simply putting them back to work.

“The more people we get back to work, the more people go back to the health care they like from their jobs,” he said.

That’s it. That’s the entire Republican healthcare policy.

After the Republicans successfully strike down the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. Supreme Court, people will be free to go back to work in a teetering economy with record unemployment. Once they’re back at those jobs, many of which no longer exist, they can risk their health amid a possible second wave of coronavirus, projected to be more deadly than the first.

The self-employed, or people who work for employers who do not provide health insurance plans, will be faced with the choice many of them had before the ACA was passed — untreated illness or medical bankruptcy.

“Sen. Tillis is standing here on this stage tonight attacking my position because he has none,” Cunningham said, summing up the Republican Party’s policy.

The revelation takes on a bitter irony because conservative politicians and officials like Tillis and Trump are getting access to the best taxpayer-funded health care after getting infected at a tightly packed, mostly mask-fee ceremony for a Supreme Court nominee who will almost certainly vote to overturn the ACA. That Sept. 26 Rose Garden gathering was a celebration of Republicans’ imminent denial of basic health care for the rest of us.

It’s right to extend well wishes to anyone afflicted with COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also call out the Republican Party for acting like soulless bastards.

With pundits pondering what might happen should Trump die, the future of America hangs in the balance. Staged photo ops showing the president doing official paperwork failed to stifle talk about presidential succession, especially after a close inspection of the photos revealed that Trump was signing blank pieces of paper with a sharpie. Even the video of him leaving the hospital was not convincing, as he looked to be gasping for air.

Given the grave threat to Americans’ access to affordable health care should the Republicans prevail, it’s quite likely that by next week few will remember that Cal Cunningham texted anybody anything.

But Cunningham’s three debates with Tillis have provided a vital public service regarding the NC Senate race. They have given even the most jaded and cynical viewers a laser-sharp look at what’s at stake in November’s election. One political party is committed to putting out our national dumpster fire, the other is content to watch it burn.

For the more of Moran’s thoughts on this and other elections, tune into Episode 27 of our Nooze Hounds podcast, featuring him and Kendrick Cunningham. 

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