Debate moderator Norah O'Donnell asked Tillis and Democrat Kay Hagan what they thought of the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision, which said a company that objects for religious reasons can deny employees contraceptive coverage.
"I believe contraception should be available probably more broadly than it is today," he said. "I actually agree with the American Medical Association, that we should make contraception more widely available. I think over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without prescription. If you do that, you will increase access and reduce barriers for having more options for women for contraception."
Turns out Tillis isn't the only GOP Senate candidate pushing the over-the-counter alternative.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Republican Senate candidates in Colorado, Virginia and Minnesota have also broached the idea of over-the-counter sales. The Times said the positions "bear the strong scent of election-year choreography."
Like candidates across the country, Tillis and Hagan are fighting over the women's vote.
Tillis said the Hobby Lobby decision was about religious freedom, not contraception.
Hagan disagrees with the ruling.
"Kay Hagan, I suspect, with the support that she's getting from the pharmaceutical industry, may have a variety of reasons to not put it on the counter," Tillis said, "but that's how you reduce costs and improve access."
Tillis suggested Hagan might oppose over-the-counter sales because of her support from the pharmaceutical industry. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she's gotten over $425,000 in contributions from the industry.
Tillis' comments on contraception caught even supporters by surprise.
“We were a little surprised by the over-the-counter idea on contraception," said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition. "But look what's happened in the race. Kay Hagan has tried to paint Thom Tillis as being extreme. She's gone out there and created this false narrative that he’s trying to limit women's access to contraception.....
"Making contraception available over the counter is is a bad idea. But what we know about Tillis is he has a record of being pro-life. He’ll be a supporter of pro-life values in the Senate."
Melissa Reed, a vice president of Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund, said Tillis's proposal "masquerades as a solution, but it is not one."
"It's not surprising that Thom Tillis is trying to muddy the waters: 57 percent of women voters say they would be more likely to support a candidate who opposes allowing employers like Hobby Lobby to refuse to cover birth control."