MORGAN, Minn - DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Republican opponent Scott Jensen stressed their rural roots and tussled over the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic and the future of the state's workforce in the first debate in their race to be Minnesota's next governor.
The candidates went head-to-head at the annual agriculture exposition Farmfest, debating for more than an hour in front of a standing-room-only crowd. While questions focused on their plans to help farmers and rural areas thrive, the conversation repeatedly veered back to COVID-19, with the candidates trading sharp remarks over their responses to the pandemic.
"Let farmers farm; let miners mine; let teachers teach, and let government get the hell out of the way," said Jensen, who criticized Walz for shutting down classrooms and businesses at the beginning of the pandemic and for his response to the riots in Minneapolis after George Floyd's killing.
Walz, who is seeking a second term, shot back at Jensen for spreading "false information" about the effectiveness of vaccines. He said it's easy to criticize decisions after the fact, but he had to take action during unprecedented challenges.
"Having served 24 years in the National Guard, that's a lot more experience than watching 'Top Gun: Maverick' and second-guessing our men and women putting themselves at risk," Walz said.
Debating in farm country, both candidates made note of their connections to rural Minnesota. Jensen grew up in Sleepy Eye, not far from where the farm show is held. Throughout the debate, the former state senator leaned on his personal experiences as a family physician in Chaska.
Walz, who said it's his 17th appearance at Farmfest, represented the largely rural First District of southern Minnesota in Congress for 12 years. He said he was a member of the Future Farmers of America but joked "my jacket doesn't fit" anymore.
In his first race for governor four years ago, Walz drew some support from areas outside the metro with his "One Minnesota" message. He has renewed that mantra in his re-election campaign, but his response to the pandemic has hurt his image in some rural areas.
Jensen said Walz's "One Minnesota" slogan has become the "antonym of what we've seen." He repeatedly railed against Walz for the state of the economy and said the government incentivized people during the pandemic to not work and "sit on the couch and watch TV."
Walz fired back that he would never call Minnesotans "lazy" and cited the health care workers who responded to thousands of sick patients at the height of the pandemic.
"Instead of spreading false information, be a part of the solution," the governor said.
Jensen, who is not vaccinated against the coronavirus, rose in prominence in the Republican Party for questioning COVID-19 death certificates early in the pandemic. After announcing his campaign for governor last year, he focused his message on criticizing lockdown policies and questioning the effectiveness of vaccines.
Besides the pandemic, the economy and the state's workforce shortages were dominant themes in the debate.
Walz earned cheers from the crowd when he said the Legislature should return in a special session and pass a $4 billion tax cut package that was left on the table at the end of the last legislative session. The bill included the elimination of state taxes on Social Security income. He criticized Jensen for encouraging Republican legislators to walk away from that deal.
"Scott asked Republicans to step away so that it would look like it did not get done," Walz said. "That's what's broken about governance."
The governor frequently mentioned the state's 1.8% unemployment rate — the lowest ever of any state in the nation. But Jensen called the rate a "false metric.''
"The fact of the matter is, if you've got the biggest raise you've had in three years at 5% and you're falling behind because inflation is 9.1%, then frankly, the 1.8% [unemployment rate] doesn't really matter," Jensen said to applause. "That's a false metric."
Both candidates cited broadband, infrastructure and child care as necessities for rural areas to thrive, but Walz said the state also must boost funding for schools so smaller communities don't have to rely on property taxes to help classrooms. Jensen countered by rolling out a 10-point plan for rural economic expansion and said he'd appoint more members of his cabinet from outside the seven-county metro area.
The debate touched on environmental policies, with Walz calling for permanent drought relief for farmers to keep the issue from getting caught up in politics. Jensen criticized the governor for his push for clean car standards, which will require auto dealers to make more zero-emission vehicles available for sale.
Walz and Jensen worked together on some policies when they were both at the Capitol, which came up during the debate. But it was the first time the two have shared a political stage since Jensen became a candidate for governor.
Jensen is pushing for more frequent debates, but no others are scheduled yet.