Governor Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen met for a televised debate Tuesday night, disagreeing over the state’s response to COVID-19, civil unrest and education while hoping to strike a chord with voters whose lives have been uprooted by the challenges of recent years.
Republicans running in state elections are hoping the midterm elections will act as a referendum on crime and a faltering economy, giving their candidates a chance to steer the state in a different direction.
Walz, who is leading in the latest polls, vows to maintain access to abortion in Minnesota and invest more in education, touting the state’s record unemployment rate as a sign of economic rebound after the pandemic slowed down.
Jensen, who in the GOP primaries said he would ban abortions, did not express his views on abortion on Tuesday but insisted the issue was not on the ballot from November: “As governor, I will not ban abortion. I can’t”.
“It’s on the ballot,” Walz countered, noting Jensen’s previous statements pledging to ban or restrict abortion access in Minnesota. “It will impact generations to come.”
“My entire career, I’ve made it clear that I trust women to make their health decisions.”
(You can read more about the abortion rights situation in Minnesota after Roe v. Wade was struck down here)
Asked about improving school safety in light of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Walz advocated for gun reform measures, such as background checks and red flag laws, to remove from the streets the weapons “which were intended for war”. He said easy access to guns is one of the causes of mass shootings, citing the St. Paul Truck Park shooting earlier this year in which the gun was traced to a straw buyer.
Jensen pointed to recent violence at local high school football games and accused Walz of sparking a “toxic spread of lawlessness,” which he would seek to stem with mandatory minimum jail sentences.
Jensen described himself as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, saying “violators” perpetuate shootings and that he would seek tougher penalties for straw buyers.
On the possibility of gun restrictions, Jensen said “if we think that’s going to solve the problem, we’re kidding ourselves.”
The debate then moved to a weird moment where the candidates were asked to share something nice about their opponent, with Jensen pausing before saying he had already thought about the matter and thinks Walz is “gracious” and “has a wonderful smile”.
Walz responded with a standard answer about Jensen being a good family man, with Jensen’s response eliciting some reactions on social networks.
After that moment, the candidates answered questions about agriculture, with Jensen calling the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency “heavy” and “punitive.”
Regarding mining in northern Minnesota, Jensen said he would support the reinstatement of Twin Metals’ lease for a project that has raised myriad concerns about the impact on the Boundary Waters wilderness. Canoe Area Wilderness. Jensen said the government should “step aside,” while Walz said he would respect science and the law on such projects.
“If it’s agriculture, if it’s medical devices, if it’s mining, if we can do it safely and smartly, we will do it,” Walz said.
The candidates’ disagreements were glaring on issues concerning race and the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd.
Jensen argued that education in schools had been “corrupted” and that minority communities were “unhappy” with “hyper-emphasis on skin color”.
Walz said his opponent was disparaging Minnesota schools and spreading “vicious internet rumors,” referring to an instance of Jensen repeating a hoax about cat litter boxes in schools.
“It’s not who we are,” Walz said. “We are an immigrant state that values that. We have more refugees per capita than any other state – it’s not just a deadly good thing, it’s our economic and cultural future.
With billions in the state budget surplus, Walz advocated for middle-class tax cuts and spending cuts for public safety, long-term care, education and transportation.
Jensen, whose own tax plan was analyzed to find it would benefit Minnesota’s wealthiest residents the most, struck a swipe at Democrats by touting frontline worker payments, saying “if you stop the waste, fraud, abuse, cost overruns and pay attention, you’d save every family in Minnesota $1,000.”
Jensen also criticized Walz’s response to the Feeding Our Future fraud investigation, saying the nation’s biggest COVID-19 fraud scheme to date was aided by a “lazy” governor’s office.
Walz pointed to the federal government’s sweeping easing of restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and said after-action reviews will help ensure safeguards between the state and federal government in the future.
Regarding the civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd, Walz said he was proud of how first responders responded to the situation and believes state coordination averted violence in other situations that followed, such as the trial of Derek Chauvin and the aftermath of the police killing of Daunte Wright.
Jensen said Walz failed to support the police and National Guard throughout the unrest. There was criticism of the delay in deploying the National Guard at the height of the riots, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey blaming Walz for not responding quickly enough to his request, and Walz blaming Frey for not having submitted formal written request as required.
“Anything to do with legal behavior, it seems like Tim Walz isn’t there,” Jensen said. “And yet,” he said, “I’m proud of the way Minnesota responded” — burn that into your psyche, Minnesota.
Walz targeted Jensen on his record as a physician, pointing out that he was in the top 6% of physicians in 2013 for prescribing opioids to Medicare Part D patients, with Jensen’s views on health care already under review for his skepticism towards COVID-19 and vaccines.
In his closing remarks, Walz said his vision is one of a welcoming and inclusive state that invests in health care, education, transportation and workforce development.
“We know you’re investing in the future, that’s what comes back to you tenfold,” he said.
Jensen said voters hold the power to “take back their rights” in November.
“This time I want you, me and Matt Birk to stand side by side in the arena,” he said. “I want us to move forward and I want us to heal Minnesota.”
The latest poll
The latest MinnPost / Embold Research poll on Monday showed Walz was preferred by 47% of respondents while Jensen was preferred by 42%. The other four candidates on the ballot shared 5% of the support; 5% remained undecided and 1% said they would not vote.
The results showed Walz increased a narrow lead over Jensen since the previous poll results in June, with Walz showing significant advantages among female voters and younger voters.
With three weeks to go until Election Day, the candidates are due to debate again on Friday, October 28. The event will be organized and broadcast by MPR News.