The rival Minnesota candidates for U.S. Senate offered sharply different visions for the job in a short debate Friday that saw them clash over the pandemic, public safety, race, the Supreme Court and climate change.
The 50-minute debate on Minnesota Public Radio was the third and final scheduled encounter between Democratic Sen. Tina Smith and her Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis.
Coming just hours after news of President Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus diagnosis, the federal response to the pandemic dominated the start of the debate. Smith criticized the White House’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis while Lewis decried the economic toll from Gov. Tim Walz’s business restrictions.
Lewis met with Trump on Wednesday on the president’s campaign visit to Minnesota.
“I’ve been tested four times in the past four weeks. We maintained social distancing — I did talk to the president, but at a distance,” Lewis said. “We’re going to quarantine until I can get to a doctor until I can get tested.”
Smith said that “the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been a disaster” — citing shortages of testing capacity and protective equipment, and a nationwide death count that has topped 200,000. She said her focus in the Senate has been on measures that would extend direct help to individuals, business owners, school districts and local governments.
“Quarantine the sick, protect the vulnerable, treat the rest of the country as adults and we will get through this together,” Lewis said, while warning that business shutdowns would go on longer under Democrats. “You’re not going to cure this with another Great Depression,” he said.
The candidates also clashed on the police killing of George Floyd, and ensuing civil unrest that drove a nationwide debate over race and policing. Smith was asked to explain where she stands on the “defund the police” movement advocated by some activists on the left.
“I do not want to defund the police and I’ve said that consistently,” Smith said. She added that the recent months have “laid bare inequities in our policing and in our courts” as she called for “common sense reforms to bring more accountability, transparency and justice to policing.”
Citing discussions with Minneapolis business owners, Lewis said, “We don’t have a problem with too many police, we have a problem with too little police.” He cricitized Smith for, in his view, not sufficiently condemning the riots, looting and arson that followed Floyd’s death in May.
Smith said that “we all condemn violence and arson and looting” but then added: “I have to say, to listen to our president in the debate earlier this week fail to repeatedly condemn white supremacy … I have not heard my opponent condemn that.”
“Of course we all condemn them,” Lewis responded.
Smith was appointed to the U.S. Senate by former Gov. Mark Dayton in early 2018. She won a special election two years ago. She and Lewis, a former Republican congressman and radio host, are now competing for a full six-year term.
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll published earlier this week found Smith leading Lewis, 49 to 41%.