Virus Outbreak Poses Political Challenge For Republican In Key Senate Race Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is seeking reelection and has allied himself with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to support the state's stay-at-home order even as many Republicans want to see the state reopen.

Virus Outbreak Poses Political Challenge For Republican In Key Senate Race

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To retake the Senate, Democrats are focused on a handful of states, including North Carolina. First-term Republican Thom Tillis is considered one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, and the coronavirus pandemic has upended the race. Steve Harrison from member station WFAE has more.

STEVE HARRISON, BYLINE: Even as the pandemic has spared North Carolina from the worst, the state's stay-at-home order continues. Hundreds of protesters. Like Gary Jesmock, are having weekly marches in the state capital, Raleigh, against Democratic Governor Roy Cooper's public health mandates.

GARY JESMOCK: I've seen the damage that's been done by this shutdown, and I think it's very dangerous.

HARRISON: But Thom Tillis is taking a different path. He's applauding Cooper's actions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOM TILLIS: We're moving in the right direction, but we have not beaten this virus. And the last thing we can do right now is let our guard down.

HARRISON: Early in his term, Tillis got attention for suggesting the government not require restaurant employees to wash their hands as a way to cut red tape. Today, he's chiding North Carolinians for not taking the pandemic seriously enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TILLIS: I have a concern that we still have a significant number of people in North Carolina who are not heeding the advice on social distancing and wearing facial coverings when they go out.

HARRISON: In a state that's been close in the last three presidential elections, Tillis won his first race by 1 1/2 percentage points in what was, at the time, the most expensive Senate race ever. The Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, says Tillis' praise of Cooper is all about November.

CAL CUNNINGHAM: I think we see, once again, a very transparent election-year effort to grab ahold of what's popular.

HARRISON: Cunningham, an attorney who served in the Army JAG Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Tillis isn't doing enough to push the Trump administration to send North Carolina more personal protective equipment.

CUNNINGHAM: First, he says that the president has exercised decisive leadership, but here we still don't have the testing and the PPE that the governor is calling for.

HARRISON: Tillis' campaign said in a statement that the senator is supporting a, quote, "data-driven bipartisan approach to reopening." For Tillis, challenging the president has been perilous. He initially opposed the president's emergency declaration to pay for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Conservatives were furious, and Tillis reversed himself but not before being booed at Trump rallies. Trump has endorsed Tillis but hasn't forgotten. Here's the president in January.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a good relationship, but we sort of disagreed on a couple of minor policies. And that's OK. Course I won't put up with it for long, Thom Tillis.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRISON: So far, Tillis has backed the recommendations from the White House coronavirus task force. But when asked about the president's suggestion that injecting disinfectant might kill the virus, the Tillis campaign did not warn against that. Instead, it said people who think they're sick should see their doctor. As North Carolina moves to reopen, Tillis will have to balance the caution from the state's liberal and harder-hit regions, like Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, with rural conservative areas.

Last week, an 84-year-old retiree James Rice told Tillis by phone that he's worried the Main Street stores in his small city of Mt. Airy will never reopen.

JAMES RICE: I've seen a lot of things, but I'm going to tell you, this is a very serious, serious situation. Otherwise, you're going to come to Mt. Airy, N.C., which was a lively little town, and you're going to find nothing.

HARRISON: Six years ago, Surry County - home to Mt. Airy - gave Tillis one of his biggest margins of victory in the state, and the question for his reelection is whether voters there will accept his caution.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Harrison in Charlotte.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAGGIE ROGERS' "ALASKA (SOFI TUKKER REMIX)")

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