The candidates in two of Minnesota’s most-watched congressional races shared the stage for a final time Sunday evening, sparring over policy and campaign attack ads in their last debates before Election Day.
The two political newcomers vying for retiring congressman John Kline’s seat in the Second District — DFLer Angie Craig and Republican Jason Lewis — traded jabs on health care and foreign policy in the first of the back-to-back debates aired live on KSTP-TV. In the second half-hour, Rep. Erik Paulsen, a Republican who has represented the Third District since 2008, defended his voting record against criticism from DFL challenger Terri Bonoff, a state senator.
With just more than a week to go before Election Day, the two races in districts that cover much of the suburban metro area are competitive. The Second District includes the south metro cities of Eagan and Lakeville, continuing south to Northfield and east to Red Wing. The Third District covers suburban communities south, west and north of Minneapolis, including Bloomington, Eden Prairie and Maple Grove.
Races in each district have prompted a barrage of television ads from candidates and outside groups backing them. The candidates have sought to tie their opponents to their respective party’s presidential candidate, a theme that carried into Sunday evening — particularly in the Third-District debate.
After a question about the fairness of Bonoff’s efforts to tie Paulsen to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Paulsen said he was likely to skip the major-party and third-party candidates on the ballot altogether and write in the candidate he backed in the Republican primary: Marco Rubio.
Bonoff questioned Paulsen’s decision to vote for someone who is not on the ballot.
“As a leader we have choices: what’s right, what’s wrong,” she said. “In this particular case there’s two choices … and if you want to throw your vote away, I don’t call that courageous leadership.”
He had hoped to back his party’s nominee, Paulsen said, but announced earlier that he would not support Trump following the release of a video in which Trump brags about groping women. Instead, he said his choice not to endorse either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton reflects many voters’ dissatisfaction with their options.
“You never throw your vote away when you vote and you make a statement,” he said.
Meanwhile, Paulsen called for tax reform and pointed to Bonoff’s voting record in the Legislature, singling out her 2009 vote for a “fourth tier” income tax that was ultimately not passed. Bonoff called Paulsen’s explanation of her record misleading, adding that as “pro-business Democrat,” she had opposed other tax increases.
In the Second District race, Craig, a former executive at St. Jude Medical, frequently has linked Lewis, a former talk-radio host, to Trump, pointing to Lewis’ brash on-air style and comments about women. Trump’s name didn’t come up in Sunday’s debate, but Lewis made several attempts to link Craig to Clinton as he answered questions on the prospect of admitting Syrian refugees to the U.S. and on the best way to control the country’s borders.
Lewis said he believes the country should not take in “dangerous” Syrian refugees, citing conversations in leaked Clinton e-mails about the difficulties of vetting refugees from that country. He tied Craig’s support of allowing some Syrians into the country to actions by Clinton as secretary of state that he said helped expanded problems with international terrorism.
“I get a kick out of someone who is supporting Hillary Clinton talking about foreign policy,” Lewis said.
The U.S. must do what it can to address “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II,” Craig insisted.
“There is no such thing as an unvettable Syrian refugee,” she said. “We are either able to vet someone thoroughly … or we simply don’t let them in.”
When it came to health care, Craig and Lewis repeated many talking points they’ve focused on throughout the campaign. Lewis said Craig wants to expand the Affordable Care Act. Craig countered that she wants to hold on to pieces of the ACA that have made a difference, like allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ plans, while seeking other reforms.
The two also showed a wide gulf in their thinking on transit: Craig said she supports plans for the Southwest light rail line to help spur economic investment and job growth, while Lewis opposes the light rail, instead favoring spending on the construction of more roads to cut congestion.