Supreme Court vacancy looms large in 2nd NC Senate debate

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Questions about the potential successor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg hung heavy over Tuesday night’s second debate in a U.S. Senate race in North Carolina whose outcome could decide the chamber’s control.

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While Republican incumbent Thom Tillis embraced a swift process toward President Donald Trump's preferred conservative on the Supreme Court, Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham urged delay until the next presidential term and accused Tillis of giving “a blank check to the president.” Tillis issued a warning to voters, repeating several times that a Joe Biden presidency would bring “radical left" judges, eroding gun rights.

Cunningham and Tillis met in a Raleigh television studio for their second debate in as many weeks but the first since the death of Ginsburg at 87. At issue in their meeting was the timing of a new appointment to the nation's highest court and the legal philosophy of Trump's expected nominee.

Tillis, a Judiciary Committee member, has quickly aligned himself with Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, telling Trump rally participants in Fayetteville last weekend that he would vote to confirm any of the candidates on Trump’s list.

Tillis dismissed the idea that his support for a Trump nominee's confirmation so close to the election ran counter to him joining with other Republican senators in 2016 to refuse to vote on then-President Barack Obama's nominee in an election year. Trump has said he would his announce his choice Saturday. Confirmation hearings could begin next month.

Obama “was on his way out the door. What we’re talking about now is the role that I play in the U.S. Senate,” Tillis said. “President Trump deserves to send forth a nominee and I intend to hear them in (the) Judiciary Committee and then move for passage on the floor.”

Cunningham said his opponent was being hypocritical by giving Trump's nominee a hearing now, instead of waiting for a new presidential term.

“Sen. Tillis supported that very idea in 2016. He trusted and wanted to hear from the American people in 2016,” Cunningham said. “He doesn't today.”

Preparations for the political fight over Ginsburg’s successor brought a new acuity to the differences between Cunningham and Tillis in the closely watched race. Democrats need to flip four seats to ensure chamber control. The North Carolina Senate race has attracted the most outside campaign spending of any federal race this year save for the presidential campaign, with $65 million targeting the two candidates already for the general election, the Center for Responsive Politics said.

Tillis sought to accentuate his Senate experience, saying he was familiar with the president's top candidates — including North Carolina native Allison Jones Rushing — because of his Judiciary Committee work. He said Biden wouldn't release his own list of favored candidates to the Supreme Court.

Responding after Tillis was the aggressor in last week's debate, Cunningham gave out more verbal jabs on Tuesday. The Iraq War veteran and Raleigh attorney accused Tillis of failing to come through in his first term on solutions to the immigration system and to the national debt. He said Tillis wrongly accused him of supporting Medicare for All, saying he actually supports building upon Obama's 2010 federal health care law. Tillis, meanwhile, has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, according to Cunningham, and offered no credible replacement.

“He went to Washington and he's failed to deliver,” Cunningham said, adding that Tillis “capitulated to the partisan forces within his own party."

Tillis continued to accuse Cunningham of breaking promises and raising taxes during his short stint in the state legislature almost 20 years ago, He argued Cunningham would give in to the liberal policies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has help raised money to support Cunningham, if Democrats win a majority.

It “sounds like Chuck Schumer's investing in a rubber stamp when you get up to Washington,” Tillis said.

On recent unrest in cities, Cunningham said he was against sending in federal troops to quell disturbances. Tillis said they should be brought in at a governor's request. Cunningham said North Carolina's Fort Bragg, named for a Confederate general, should be renamed. Tillis said local residents and people who serve on installations should help make renaming decisions.

An Associated Press photographer was the only outside journalist allowed inside the debate studio. Others were barred from watching in person the debate, which aired on several Nexstar stations, due to safety concerns from COVID-19. A final TV debate is set for Oct. 1.