Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and GOP challenger Scott Jensen tore into each other's records and plans for Minnesota during their first and only televised debate Tuesday night.
With three weeks until Election Day, the two offered sharply contrasting views on what they would do with the next four years in the state's top job. Jensen said he wants to cut state spending, shift education dollars and bolster law enforcement, while the first-term governor stressed his support for abortion access, increasing school funding and combating gun violence.
"You get a choice here of a vision of Minnesota, one that questions our elections, one that tells women they can't make their choices, one that defunds our public schools, or you get an opportunity that brought so many of us to Minnesota," Walz said at the KTTC-TV studio in Rochester. "An opportunity for a state that is inclusive."
The governor said the return on state investments in priorities such as education, roads and health care "comes back to you tenfold over."
Jensen, meanwhile, highlighted lagging student test scores, rising violent crime and inflation during Walz's tenure.
"We need to start funding kids, not broken institutions," said Jensen, who is pushing for student choice, where dollars would follow students to private, charter or public schools. He also condemned the prolonged use of distance learning during the pandemic, saying, "These kids are going to be paying the price of Tim Walz's irresponsible policy decisions for years to come."
The two squared off over abortion early in the debate, with Jensen saying he would not ban abortion and that Minnesotans could vote on the issue as a constitutional amendment. He also said the state needs to "share the responsibility and the challenge of planning families and planning pregnancies," including paid maternity benefits and a tax credit associated with adoption. Walz stressed that governors can appoint Minnesota Supreme Court justices who interpret cases.
"I just want to be absolutely clear — [abortion] is on the ballot," Walz said.
They also had heated clashes on opioids, gun policies and mining. Jensen called permitting and regulations around the Twin Metals mine "horrific" and said it is "killing the northern part of our state." Walz said if mining can be done "safely and smartly" then his administration will support it.
On the Feeding Our Future fraud case, Jensen said there was "laziness of the most magnified degree" by the Walz administration in failing to block what federal prosecutors have said was a massive scheme by nonprofits to defraud the government of $250 million.
When pressed on future fraud prevention and what the state could have done differently, Walz said state officials need to work with the federal government to make sure both federal and state safeguards are in place.
In the final weeks before Nov. 8, the two candidates are racing to engage voters, besmirch each others' backgrounds and sell their competing visions for the future of state government. They have spent months sharing their stances through events, social media and countless ads.
But Tuesday night was their first head-to-head since a forum in early August at the annual Farmfest agricultural event in Redwood County. There, the two repeatedly clashed over the pandemic, while also touching on the economy, workforce challenges, environmental policies and more.
Some similar themes emerged at Tuesday's event, as a panel of journalists questioned the candidates. The debate aired on TV stations in the Rochester, Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead and Mankato markets.
The gubernatorial hopefuls are slated for a final debate Oct. 28 on MPR News. Neither October debate takes place in front of a live audience.
Jensen criticized Walz this summer for not agreeing to more debates, saying he is "hiding" from conversations on rising crime and inflation. Walz's spokesman said at the time that they were inundated with requests, adding, "We can't make every single debate."
Recent polls depict a close race with Walz, a former congressman and high school teacher from Mankato, holding a relatively narrow lead over Jensen, a family doctor who lives in Chaska and spent one term in the Minnesota Senate.
Staff writer Trey Mewes contributed to this report.