GOP U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democratic rival Terri Bonoff squared off in their first debate Wednesday, highlighting their careers and accomplishments in a room packed with local business leaders.
Paulsen, the Republican incumbent in Minnesota’s Third Congressional District, touted his success passing legislation to combat human trafficking and a repeal of a medical-device tax, an effort backed by the state’s growing medical technology industry.
A state senator from Minnetonka, Bonoff is trying to build a reputation as a business-friendly DFLer who has bucked her party on education policy and trade.
Bonoff said she disagreed with her party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, on trade, specifically on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a hotly debated global trade agreement. The recently negotiated trade deal is still awaiting congressional approval. Paulsen also supports the trade agreement, and he criticized Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for not wanting to expand international trade that he said is vital to creating jobs.
Even as they strove to contrast their records, both candidates struck a steady, centrist tone. Paulsen frequently touted legislation he worked on with Democrats. Bonoff recalled state legislation she worked on with DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis and former state Rep. Keith Downey, now chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
The debate focused on transportation spending, health care and the country’s debt. Trump, however, loomed larger over the debate, highlighted by an extended back-and-forth between the two candidates over the bombastic GOP nominee.
Paulsen earlier this year said he expected to vote for the nominee, but in recent weeks he has backed away from that position. Paulsen said Trump has not yet earned his vote.
Instead, Paulsen said it is more important to know who a congressional candidate will back for U.S. House speaker. He said he would vote for Speaker Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, the once-reluctant Republican who took control of the House majority last year amid turmoil between conservative members of the party and more moderate lawmakers. “I don’t think any candidate necessarily has to be in a position denouncing anybody running for president,” Paulsen said.
He added: “The most important vote we cast — it’s not going to be for president — it’s going to be for who the speaker is.”
When pressed after the debate on his statement, Paulsen said it was because the vote for a House speaker would be the first one made by members of Congress.
Bonoff repeatedly pressed Paulsen to denounce Trump, saying that the celebrity business mogul is unfit to be commander-in-chief.
The Bloomington, Eden Prairie and TwinWest chambers of commerce hosted the debate, putting the candidates in front of a crowd that could be hugely influential in the election.
The Third District race is becoming one of the most-watched in the country, as Democrats see a rare chance to win in a historically Republican district.
Democrats have tried to tie Paulsen to Trump, whose support is weakest in affluent suburban communities such as the ones Paulsen represents. The district includes western and northern suburbs, spreading from Eden Prairie and Minnetonka north to Maple Grove.
Bonoff is Paulsen’s first significant challenger since he was first elected to the seat in 2008.
Paulsen has proved to be a prolific fundraiser and has seen thousands of dollars pour into his campaign nearly every day from outside political action groups. Bonoff’s campaign is taking in a lot of money, too, and has strong assistance from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.