Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen met for a televised debate Tuesday evening, disagreeing on 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 for state office are hoping the midterm election will act as a referendum against crime and a faltering economy, giving their candidates a chance to lead the state in a different direction.
Walz, who leads in the latest polls, is promising to uphold abortion access in Minnesota and invest further in education, touting the state's record-low unemployment rate as a sign of economic rebound from the pandemic downturn.
Jensen, who during the GOP primaries said he would ban abortions, didn't express his own views on abortion Tuesday, but insisted the issue isn't on the ballot in November: "As Governor, I won't ban abortion. I can't".
"This is on the ballot," Walz countered, noting previous statements Jensen has made pledging to ban or restrict abortion access in Minnesota. "It will impact generations to come."
"My entire career I've made it clear I've trusted women to make their healthcare decisions."
When asked about improving school safety in light of the Uvalde mass shooting, Walz advocated for gun reform measures, such as background checks and red flag laws, to get guns off the streets "that were meant for war." He said easy access to firearms is one of the causes of mass shootings, citing the St. Paul Truck Park shooting earlier this year in which the firearm traced back to a straw buyer.
Jensen pointed to recent violence at local high school football games and accused Walz of unleashing a "poisonous spread of lawlessness", to which he'd look to stem with mandated minimums on prison sentences.
Jensen described himself as a strong advocate for the Second Amendment, stating "lawbreakers" perpetuate shootings and he'd look to stiffen penalties for straw buyers.
Of the possibility of restrictions on guns, Jensen said "if we think that's going to solve the problem, we're kidding ourselves."
The debate then moved to a strange moment where the candidates were asked to share something nice about their opponent, with Jensen pausing before saying he'd thought about the question before and thinks Walz is "affable" and "has a wonderful smile."
Walz responded with a standard response about Jensen being a good family man, with Jensen's answer drawing some reactions on social media.
After this moment, the candidates responded to questions about agriculture, with Jensen calling the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency "heavy-handed" and "punitive."
In regard to mining in northern Minnesota, Jensen said he'd support reinstating the Twin Metals lease for a project that has raised myriad concerns about the impact on the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Jensen said government should get "out of the way", while Walz said he'd abide by the science and the law on such projects.
"If it's agriculture, if it's medical devices, if it's mining — if we can do so safely and smartly, we'll do it," Walz said.
The candidates disagreements were stark on questions regarding race and the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd.
Jensen argued education in schools has been "corrupted" and claimed minority communities are "not pleased" with a "hyper-accentuation of skin-color."
Walz said his opponent denigrates Minnesota schools and spreads "vicious internet rumors", referencing an instance of Jensen repeating a hoax about cat litter boxes in schools.
“That’s not who we are," Walz said. "We’re a state of immigrants that values that. We have more refugees per capita than any other state — that’s not just mortally a good thing, it’s our economic and cultural future.”
With billions in the state's budget surplus, Walz advocated for middle-class tax cuts and spending on public safety, long-term care, education and transportation.
Jensen, whose own tax plan has been analyzed to find it would benefit the wealthiest Minnesotans the most, took a jab at Democrats touting frontline worker payments, stating "if you would stop the waste, the fraud, the abuse, the cost overruns and pay attention, you would save every family in Minnesota $1,000."
Jensen also criticized Walz's response to the Feeding Our Future fraud investigation, claiming the largest COVID-19 fraud scheme in the nation to date was helped along by a "lazy" governor's office.
Walz pointed to the federal government's sweeping relaxation of restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and said after-action reviews will help ensure safeguards between the state and federal government moving forward.
In regards to the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, Walz said he's proud of the way first responders reacted to the situation and believes the state's coordination staved off 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 stand with police and the National Guard throughout the unrest. There was criticism of the delay in the deployment of the National Guard during the height of the riots, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey blaming Walz for not reacting quickly enough to his request, and Walz blaming Frey for not submitting a formal written request as required.
"Anything that has to do with lawful behavior, it seems Tim Walz isn't there," Jensen said. "And yet, he says, 'I'm proud of the way Minnesota responded' — burn that into your psyche, Minnesota."
Walz targeted Jensen over his record as a medical doctor, pointing out that he was in the top 6% of doctors in 2013 for prescribing opioids to Medicare Part D patients, with Jensen's views on healthcare already under scrutiny for his skepticism towards COVID-19 and vaccines.
In closing remarks, Walz said his vision is for a welcoming and inclusive state that invests in healthcare, education, transportation and workforce development.
"We know that you invest in the future, that that's what comes back to you ten-fold over," he said.
Jensen said voters hold the power to "take back their rights" in November.
"This time around, I want you and I and Matt Birk to stand in the arena side-by-side," he said. "I want us to go forward and I want us to heal Minnesota."
The latest poll
The latest MinnPost/Embold Research poll Monday showed Walz was preferred by 47% of those polled while Jensen was preferred by 42%. The four other candidates on the ballot shared 5% of the support; 5% remained undecided and 1% said they would not vote.
The results showed Walz has increased a narrow lead over Jensen since the prior poll results in June, with Walz showing significant advantages among women voters and young voters.
With three weeks to go to Election Day, the candidates are expected to debate once more on Friday, Oct. 28. The event will be hosted and broadcast by MPR News.