U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democratic challenger Dean Phillips both tried in a debate Friday to portray themselves as leaders who will provide a check on President Donald Trump and collaborate with Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
With less than a month before the Nov. 6 election, the two men sparred in an MPR News debate, their second so far, over topics ranging from health care to taxes and climate change as they sought to appeal to voters in the Third Congressional District.
The district, which spans Bloomington to Brooklyn Park, has elected Republicans to Congress since 1961, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.
“There may have been a time where you were a moderate and collaborated. … Things have changed,” Phillips said, reiterating his message that Paulsen is inaccessible to voters and too in sync with Trump. “That’s clear by your voting record.”
Paulsen, first elected to Congress in 2008, echoed his first TV ad of the campaign, saying he’s stood up to Trump and his party.
“In a highly challenging and politically charged environment, I’m one of those members of Congress that is actually being able to work across the aisle and get things done,” Paulsen said.
The Third District contest is expected to be tight, and it has become one of the most expensive and widely watched races in Minnesota and nationwide. In a period analyzed in September, the district ranked No. 3 nationwide among House races for the highest ad spending — $1.1 million spent over 2,338 ads.
Unlike other Minnesota races where candidates are trying to rally Trump supporters or opponents, Paulsen and Phillips aimed for the center at the debate. And unlike their first debate, Friday’s 51-minute meet-up focused largely on the race’s barrage of ads, as each candidate criticized the ads of his opponent and repeated themes from their own.
Phillips, a businessman and first-time political candidate, recently launched a comical ad of Bigfoot on the search for Paulsen, tapping “a dose of levity” needed in the country, he said, and highlighting his own accessibility as he treks around suburbs to have conversations with voters. He said if elected he would host at least one town hall every quarter, along with regular policy forums.
“I intend to show that we can do this differently and we can do this better; principle over party,” Phillips said.
After facing criticism for not hosting an in-person town hall meeting in years, Paulsen held three town halls, but he said they were uncivil. “People don’t want to come and be yelled at or screamed at,” he said.
Paulsen said he’s held 23 telephone town hall meetings in the last year and a half, 150 business visits, 249 school visits and 60 community forums.
“You would be hard-pressed to find any individual who said they weren’t able to even meet with me,” he said.
Instead, Paulsen criticized a Phillips ad in which people call Paulsen’s office to ask a staffer questions. It mocks a 20-year-old intern, Paulsen alleged, adding: “That is just pathetic.”
Phillips countered: “Even your staff can’t tell voters where to find you.”
Paulsen’s campaign has called Phillips a hypocrite, often attacking him for saying health care is “a moral right” but not initially providing it for employees at a Minneapolis coffee shop he owns.
Phillips said that his coffee shop, Penny’s, opened with no full-time employees besides him and his business partners, and that he has since provided health care to employees.
“There’s a great irony to this conversation,” Phillips added, turning to Paulsen. “There’s a lot of policies that you’ve implemented trying to … strip the [Affordable Care Act].”
Paulsen said the Affordable Care Act (ACA) drove up premiums and “destroyed Minnesota’s health care market.” Phillips said the ACA needs to be fixed and improved, and he supports a Medicare buy-in option, which Paulsen said just “goes down the road of Medicare for All.”
Paulsen has also touted his work on and support for the massive Republican tax overhaul. Phillips said it adds to the national debt and later said that he wouldn’t have voted for it if he were in Congress.
Phillips said Paulsen hasn’t stood up to his party, voting 98 percent of the time with Trump. Paulsen said that 70 percent of bills Trump has signed were bipartisan. When asked about Trump not releasing his tax returns, Paulsen said he thinks Trump should release them and Congress could change the law to require the president to do so.
Phillips jabbed back: “That’s another example of could, should, might. If I were a member of Congress, that is exactly what I would do. I think every president … should be forced to release his or her tax returns.”
Phillips reiterated another frequent point, that he doesn’t take money from political action committees (PACs), special interests or from members of Congress. Paulsen responded that he fundraises just like the rest of Minnesota’s congressional delegation does and called Phillips a hypocrite, pointing to PACs that have spent money on ads in support of Phillips.
A third debate between the two candidates has already taken place at KSTP-TV, but it hasn’t aired yet. To listen to the full MPR debate, go to mprnews.org.