Cal Cunningham says he’s in the best position to take on Sen. Thom Tillis

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – With two weeks to go until North Carolina’s March 3 primary election, Cal Cunningham is trying to make the case to Democratic voters that he’s in the best position to take on incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in November.

In an interview with CBS 17, Cunningham talked about his experience as an Army veteran and former state legislator and weighed in on the millions of dollars being spent by outside groups to try to influence the outcome of the Democratic primary. He’s led in polling and fundraising. 

Earlier this month, a group called Faith and Power PAC, which appears to be tied to Republicans, began running ads promoting Democrat Erica Smith, who is also seeking the party’s nomination. Smith believes the people behind the ad buy think Tillis would have a better chance of keeping his seat against her than against Cunningham. 

On Tuesday, the group filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission showing it’s now spending money in opposition of Cunningham, not just in support of Smith.

“The purpose of these ads is to try to re-elect Thom Tillis. And so, we take it seriously. I think voters are appropriately attuned to the tricks that are being played,” Cunningham said.

The political action fund has also been running ads in support of Cunningham for several weeks, with spending exceeding $5 million earlier this month, according to FEC filings. The group, which started in 2006, backs progressive candidates and says it has “helped elect dozens of veterans to federal and state officials.”   

Last week another PAC, Carolina Blue, filed paperwork showing it’s spending $1.1 million in support of Cunningham. CBS 17 reached out to the group but has not received a response.

Cunningham has been critical in the past of “dark money” in politics and outside groups seeking to influence the outcome of elections.

When asked about the millions of dollars being spent by these groups to support him, he said, “There’s little equivalency between Democratic-oriented groups and progressive organizations, like Vote Vets,  which is a premier national organization that elects veterans to Congress, United States Senate and the U.S. House. What I would say is we know in America today that after Citizens United, the floodgates are open to influence in our elections. And, one of my commitments to the people of North Carolina is the day I take the office in January of next year, I’m gonna file legislation to overturn that decision. It’s going to require amending the Constitution.”

Cunningham voted early in the primary, saying he cast his ballot for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg for president, who is also being supported by Vote Vets.

“He’s a person of faith and a fellow veteran,” said Cunningham. He added that he will support his party’s nominee for president.

Cunningham faced questions for several weeks about how he would have voted in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. After the Senate voted, Cunningham said if he had been in the Senate at the time he would have voted to convict and remove the president from office. 

“I wanted to hear all the evidence. I wanted to hear the president’s lawyers try to make the case for why that shouldn’t justify removal from office,” Cunningham said. “As I heard more, as I listened, as I gave the president every opportunity to state why it was that he shouldn’t be impeached and removed from office, it fell away.” 

When asked if he supports Medicare for All, he said, “I support building off the Affordable Care Act, which is an incredibly important platform for success. We need to add a public option to it, which would open up Medicare, Medicaid or even a new non-profit that could help catch people who aren’t currently able to access quality and affordable care.” He also called on North Carolina legislators to expand Medicaid.

Cunningham says he hasn’t “embraced” the Green New Deal when asked if he supports it. “What I have embraced is cutting carbon impacts by 50 percent by the year 2030 and having a carbon-neutral economy by the year 2050. That’s going to require very heavy investments in clean-energy technology: solar, wind.” 

He’s criticized the president’s emergency declaration at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Sen. Tillis initially opposed but later supported.

“A wall is a tactic. A wall can be thwarted with a shovel and a ladder. Instead, we need a smart combination of personnel, technology, and some physical barriers,” Cunningham said.

Tillis has been critical of Democratic sheriffs in the state’s largest counties (including Wake, Durham, and Mecklenburg) for no longer honoring detainer requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying those sheriffs are creating a public safety risk. 

“It’s a discretionary issue by sheriffs,” Cunningham said. “And his (Tillis’s) solution, the bill that he has filed on this very matter punishes sheriffs by taking resources away.”

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