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N.C. Race Is One That Could Determine Which Party Controls U.S. Senate

NOEL KING, HOST:

North Carolina's Senate race is one of those that could determine which party controls the Senate. The incumbent, Thom Tillis, a Republican and his challenger, Cal Cunningham, a Democrat, held their second debate last night. And as expected, the future of the Supreme Court came up. Here's Steve Harrison from member station WFAE.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Four years ago, Tillis said the Senate should not confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court because it was too close to the election. At a rally with the president Saturday night, Tillis said he would vote for Trump's nominee even though the election is less than two months away. In the debate, Tillis was asked whether that was a flip-flop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOM TILLIS: President Obama was a lame duck president on his way out the door. What we're talking about now is the role that I play in the U.S. Senate. It's called advise and consent. President Trump deserves to send forth a nominee, and I intend to hear him in Judiciary Committee and then move for passage on the floor.

HARRISON: His answer breezed by his dramatically different positions. The first-term Republican then attacked Cunningham, asking him whether former Vice President Joe Biden should release a list of his possible Supreme Court nominees.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TILLIS: Joe Biden won't issue a list and - wonder whether or not Cal thinks he should - and Joe Biden would support radical-left activist judges that would be wrong for this country.

HARRISON: Cunningham didn't answer whether Biden should release a list. Tillis also asked Cunningham whether he would support increasing the size of the Supreme Court, as some Democrats have suggested in response to the Senate filling the Ginsburg seat this year. Cunningham said he does not support packing the court, and he cast Tillis as someone beholden to the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAL CUNNINGHAM: There is an important role for a United States senator as a check and balance on the president of the United States. Rather than act as a check and balance, Senator Tillis has written a blank check to the president. He has forfeited his right to independence of judgment here on behalf of the people of our state.

HARRISON: Polls have shown Cunningham, an attorney and former state senator, with a small lead for much of the summer. But while North Carolina is becoming a purple state, Barack Obama in 2008 is the only Democratic presidential candidate to win it since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.