Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen discussed abortion, crime, the state budget and opioids in Rochester on Tuesday in their first and only television appearance together.
Walz slammed Jensen over the Republican’s shifting stance on abortion and his proposal to abolish the state’s personal income tax.
Jensen tried to steer the conversation to the crime and $250 million pandemic aid scam that has recently led to dozens of federal indictments.
In keeping with his style, Walz spoke quickly and stumbled over a few words. Jensen relied on dramatic Soundbite phrases — “You just heard a smoke screen!” for example — that Chaska’s GP uses in his frequent Facebook Live videos.
There were some sickly moments. The moderators of the debate – all white – asked the white candidates to examine race relations in Minnesota. Jensen advocated for color blindness, and Walz said they’re still in the works.
Here are a few takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:
Jensen was a top opioid prescriber in Minnesota
Eight minutes into the debate, Walz cited data on Jensen’s medical practice and said he had written more opioid prescriptions than 94% of other Minnesota doctors.
Walz’s campaign followed up the statement with an email saying the 2013 data came from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The campaign said Jensen ranked in the top 6% of Minnesota physicians by total number of opioid pills prescribed: 5,005 days’ worth of opioid pills for 46 patients that year.
Walz also said major drug companies were buying Jensen meals — drug companies frequently entertained and dined doctors while persuading them to market their opioid product. In response, Jensen shifted the conversation to drugs coming in from the southern border, saying that Walz was weak on border security.
What does “fully funded” education mean?
Jensen, who has previously advocated less funding for Minnesota schools, challenged Walz’s education mantra — that the state should fund it entirely. Citing declining student test scores, Jensen said he advocated more strategic funding for education rather than supporting “broken institutions”.
Jensen has said he would create a Minnesota school voucher system that would use public dollars to pay for private school tuition or homeschooling.
Walz, a former educator, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic was hampering student learning. He also acknowledged that Minnesota has a large learning gap between white students and students of color, with white students regularly testing much better in reading and math. He said, without presenting any evidence, that Minnesota students of color do very well compared to their peers in other states.
Response to the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd
Walz said he was proud of how first responders were handling the unrest in the Twin Cities following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. While America has experienced riots and civil unrest in the past, Walz said the riots were an unprecedented situation that “Minnesota had to write the book.”
“I’m proud of Minnesota’s response. I’m proud of Minnesota’s first responders that were out there,” Walz said.
Jensen, who hammered Walz for his handling of the riots, tried to portray Walz as in league with rioters and looters.
“Anything related to lawful conduct, Tim Walz doesn’t seem to be there,” Jensen said. “And he says, ‘I’m proud of how Minnesota responded.’ Burn that into your psyche, Minnesota.”
Jensen reiterated an attack he has been using lately that Walz is the “godfather of crime”.
Jensen said that if he had been governor during the riots, “the chain of command would have been in place immediately,” and he would be on the ground calming protesters and leading the response.
Getting caught in the weeds (and the rocks and cows) of Minnesota politics
The candidates waded in niche corners of Minnesota politics. Jensen claimed that Walz was disrespectful to the National Guard, even though Walz served in the Guard for 24 years.
During a summer 2020 interview, Walz was asked to respond to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s claims that Walz had been reluctant to deploy the National Guard during the riots. Walz said at the time Frey was unrealistically expecting troops trained in civil unrest, but he would likely get “19-year-old cooks.”
Walz directly addressed the comment, clarifying that he meant the troops have military expertise in several areas and a small percentage are trained in civil defense.
Jensen responded with sarcasm and grabbed another quote from Walz, taken out of context. That fact that Greater Minnesota is the land of “rocks and cows” has long drawn scorn from Republicans, even though Walz represented the rural 1st congressional district for a dozen years.
“A Wonderful Smile”
The contestants were asked to say one nice thing about each other.
Walz said he admires Jensen’s affinity with his family, adding that he always appreciates it when someone puts their family first.
Jensen’s answer was less generous.
“I’ve been thinking about that question. I think Tim Walz is an easy-going person who has a wonderful smile,” said Jensen.
After the debate, Walz tweeted a photo of himself with a beaming smile and wrote, “Thank you Scott.”