Jason Lewis and Erik Paulsen, GOP congressmen facing two of the most competitive races in the country, defended their records in lively back-to-back debates with their opponents on Friday.
In one of their final debates before the Nov. 6 election, the incumbents clashed with their Democratic challengers, Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, on Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” over issues ranging from taxes to health care.
Lewis and Paulsen are fighting for re-election in their suburban districts, which have become two of the Democrats’ top targets to flip this year, drawing intense national attention and a barrage of political TV ads. Lewis, a first-term congressman from Woodbury who represents the Second Congressional District, and Paulsen, a five-term congressman from Eden Prairie who represents the Third, both touted their voting records, mainly the federal tax cut bill.
But Phillips and Craig argued that the Republicans haven’t done enough to help their constituents. Craig, a former health care executive from Eagan who is running a rematch against Lewis after losing to him in 2016 by a slim margin, was critical of Lewis’ votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“You had two years to get health care fixed. You failed,” Craig told Lewis. “Your time is up.”
While Craig said she supports overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s decision allowing unlimited spending from organizations independent of campaigns, Lewis jabbed back that she’s received more outside group spending than he has.
“If you don’t like money in politics, don’t take it, Angie,” he said.
“Almanac” co-anchor Cathy Wurzer asked Lewis about a CNN story aired Friday that said he once mocked women who were traumatized by unwanted sexual advances, according to CNN’s review of his former radio show. Throughout the campaign, Lewis has been blasted for controversial comments he made about women and minorities in his previous career as a conservative talk radio host.
Lewis said people also dug up controversial comments in the last election and his radio career is the “gift that keeps on giving” in the campaign. “Now they’re coming at me with this two weeks before an election,” he added. “If we want to talk about sexual harassment, talk about Judge Brett Kavanaugh and what they’ve done to that man.”
When Wurzer asked if he would still say the same thing as his radio comment, Lewis didn’t directly answer, but instead said he wants sexual harassment law better defined. “You don’t want people able to make false accusations, and that’s what my concern was,” he said.
When asked to respond, Craig said: “I don’t think Jason’s way of thinking represents mainstream Minnesota values. But that’s up to the voters of the Second Congressional District to decide.”
Lewis and Paulsen both painted themselves as independent voices in Congress.
But Lewis appeared by President Donald Trump’s side at his latest Minnesota rally and said, “I will support him on good policies,” mentioning border control.
Craig said Lewis votes 96 percent with Republicans. “And 74 percent with [Sen. Amy] Klobuchar,” he added.
In the Third District, Paulsen has distanced himself from Trump, skipping the president’s rallies and highlighting how he’s disagreed with the administration in his first TV ad. On Friday, he stressed his bipartisan work on immigration. And Paulsen, who sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said he’s make tax cuts permanent if re-elected.
“We’ve seen such strong economic growth,” he said.
Paulsen called Phillips a millionaire with “two multimillion-dollar mansions” who is self-funding his campaign.
But Phillips, a first-time candidate and businessman from Deephaven, said Paulsen has voted 98 percent of the time with Trump and isn’t accessible to voters, pointing out he didn’t have a town hall meeting in seven years.
“I think it’s a core responsibility and duty,” Phillips said, mentioning that he’s traveled the district in his “Government Repair Truck.” He called Paulsen’s ads attacking Phillips “one of the most dishonest campaigns that Minnesota has ever seen … I find it appalling.”
“Campaigns are about differences,” Paulsen responded. “I’m just representing my positions.”
The result of the Nov. 6 election in the Second and Third Districts could be key in either allowing the GOP to hold onto control of the House or flip it to the Democrats. In 2016, Craig lost to Lewis by less than 7,000 votes. Trump won the Second District, which encompasses the southeastern Twin Cities suburbs, by a bit more than 1 percentage point. The Third District, which spans Bloomington to Coon Rapids, has elected Republicans to Congress since 1961, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton won the district in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential elections.
The Cook Political Report rated the Second and Third districts a “toss-up” earlier this year, but have moved both races into the “lean Democratic” category.