While Minnesota plunged into lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis wasted no time disputing the breadth of the restrictions.

"Open Minnesota for business," Lewis' campaign declared on March 25, the same day that Gov. Tim Walz implemented a two-week stay-home order that's since been extended to May 4.

Lewis instead urged a scaling back that would have allowed Minnesota businesses to reopen "for all but the most vulnerable residents" by April 1, and for schools to reopen by mid-April. In an interview last week, Lewis said he still believes that would be the better course.

Lewis, challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith in November, has increasingly staked his campaign on resistance to the pandemic response of Minnesota's DFL leadership, foretelling what's likely to be the dominant issue in races up and down the ballot in this pivotal election year.

The former talk show host and congressman is not the only Minnesota Republican to question whether the measures are worth the economic toll, but his position as GOP standard-bearer in the only statewide campaign this year is setting up a high-profile test of whether there's a political upside to criticizing the strictest safety measures.

"You've got these small mom and pops — car dealerships, restaurants, coffee shops in areas, quite frankly remote areas, that have no signs of any outbreak that are suffering from this shutdown," Lewis said. "I don't think that's going to help us fight the virus."

Walz implemented the stay-home measures as a means of slowing the virus' spread, so as not to overwhelm the state's medical resources. Smith has echoed the arguments of the governor — and those of a host of public health officials — that abandoning the lockdowns could lead to a resurgence of infections and create greater economic damage.

"We shouldn't be looking at this as a choice between our health and our economy," said Smith, who was appointed to the Senate at the beginning of 2018 to serve out the term of former Sen. Al Franken. "Without our health, we're going to not have a functioning economy."

For her part, Smith's focus in recent weeks, like most elected officials, has been on responding to the pandemic's economic consequences.

On Feb. 15, she signed a letter from Senate Democrats expressing concern that Trump administration officials had not yet proposed any additional federal resources to combat the developing outbreak. She later pushed for resources for child-care providers to be included in the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package and pressed for the release of Minnesotans who were stranded on cruise ships.

Lewis said that, were he in Congress now, he would have voted in favor of the relief package, which the Senate passed unanimously at the end of March — "based on the premise that this is something that government did to small-businessmen and -women, and therefore had to do something to ease the pain," he said.

Lewis has been using terms like "Chinese virus" in reference to COVID-19, echoing President Donald Trump and many conservative pundits. "I don't support discrimination against anyone, but the origin of the virus is an epidemiological fact," he said. The outbreak should motivate the U.S. government to vastly downscale its reliance on resources and goods produced in China, he said.

Smith said she, too, has concerns that some U.S. supply chains are overreliant on Chinese labor. But she said that "to link it with an ethnic group or nationality is just wrong, and a way of shifting blame."

The University of Virginia's Center for Politics, which rates election matchups around the country, has Minnesota's race as "likely Democratic." That tracks with Minnesota's 12-year unbroken string of supporting Democrats in statewide races.

And Smith, by the end of last year, had more than seven times the campaign cash in the bank as Lewis. Fundraising totals for the first three months of this year are scheduled for release by April 15.

Lewis praises Trump's handling of the viral pandemic and could benefit from the president's efforts to put Minnesota in play in the presidential election. He said he hopes to benefit from GOP donors who see Minnesota as a pickup opportunity given imperiled Republican Senate incumbents in a handful of blue states.

"There's this slate of Senate candidates who are going to be in the fight of their lives, so we better find some states we can flip," Lewis said.

Any serious critique of government response to the pandemic can't ignore the Trump administration's role, Smith said.

"I'm angry they were so slow and ineffective in getting these tests deployed," Smith said. "I think that's really hurt us. And the mess in the medical supply chain is inexcusable."

The coming weeks and months will start to show how both state and federal government actions to mitigate the coronavirus play out against the backdrop of the intensifying election cycle. While partisan fissures erupt over the science, Lewis sees voter sentiment shifting against lockdowns and other forms of government intervention.

"Politicians and pundits seem fixated on shelter-in-place policies and yet another 'stimulus' plan to save us," he wrote in a March 25 opinion piece. "Sooner or later, freedom-loving Americans will rebel."

Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413