Staff Writer

The Republican battle to replace U.S. Rep. John Kline heated up Monday night at a political debate in Cannon Falls, with each candidate trying to prove their conservative credentials.

A former conservative talk radio host, two former state legislators, a business owner and engineer debated a range of topics, including need for a smaller federal government, immigration reform, national security and climate change.

“We know that Washington is a well-oiled machine,” said candidate David Gerson, who has twice run against Kline. “We will no longer accept the collusion between special interests and government.”

The 2nd Congressional District, which covers the counties of Dakota, Scott, Goodhue, Wabasha and part of Rice, became open after Kline announced he’d retire after his current term expired. Kline first took office in 2003.

The race is expected to be one of the most-watched in the country, as Republicans try to hold off Democrats who believe that the shifting political makeup of the district make the seat ripe for flipping to their side.

Several of the candidates said Washington D.C. politics, and the Republican establishment, needed to be reformed, and that they would ignite that change.

In a crowded field, the candidates tried to prove they are the most electable and have the right experience.

 “I know how to make government work for us to get the job,” former state Rep. Pam Myhra said. “I’ve been proven to be electable.”

At the same time, all of those who participated said that congressional term limits should be put in place.

The candidates all agreed that illegal immigration needed to be stemmed, radical Islamic terrorism destroyed, Planned Parenthood defunded and the Affordable Care Act repealed.

At the start of the debate, candidates were asked whether they would honor the GOP endorsement or press on to a primary. Two candidates, former state Sen. John Howe and businesswoman Darlene Miller, did not commit to the pledge.

While most of the candidates avoided confrontation, Jason Lewis, a former talk radio personality was the most eager to criticize rivals. But he also drew some of the sharpest criticism, like when Howe criticized him for living outside the district.

“I live a whopping two miles outside of the district,” Lewis said. “I’m in the district every day, going to my doctor or going someplace else, so that’s just a red-herring.”

Lewis criticized Howe’s support of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding bill during his time as a state lawmaker.

The GOP field is vying for the chance to challenge Democrat Angie Craig, who has no DFL rival and has already racked up several high-profile endorsements.

David Benson-Staebler, a former Democratic political strategist, did not attend the GOP debate. 

Christopher Aadland is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune