Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and his Republican challenger Dr. Scott Jensen debated Tuesday night on television, but Twin Cities residents could only watch through online streams.
The panel of four journalists asked questions on a range of issues, including abortion, the state’s response to riots following George Floyd’s murder, and the Feeding Our Future fraud investigation.
Walz and allied groups have used the abortion issue as their main area of attack on Jensen, claiming he will try to ban abortion in Minnesota if elected governor.
In campaign videos and media interviews, Jensen said he would ban abortion, but he has walked back that rhetoric in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, leaving abortion laws in the hands of state legislatures.
“Because abortion in Minnesota is a legally protected right, it is not on the ballot in November,” Jensen said Tuesday night. “What’s on the ballot in November is undoubtedly skyrocketing inflation, crime out of control, and our children not getting the education they need. As governor, I’m not going to ban abortion, I can’t.”
In his response to Jensen’s response, Walz criticized Jensen for changing his position mid-campaign.
“Scott was very clear in May. He mocked me and said, ‘No kidding, Sherlock, I’m running for governor to get things done. We’re going to ban abortion, that’s not news,'” Walz said. “That changed after Roe v. Wade. I think what most of us know again, you’ve heard this many different places, it’s not about trusting women. It is not about clear beliefs. It’s about changing your positions as the wind blows.”
The moderators also asked the candidates about the state’s response to riots that erupted in the Twin Cities after George Floyd’s murder. Walz and Jensen were asked what they would do differently if something similar happened again, but they mostly talked about what happened in 2020.
“Nothing like this had been seen before — the level of violence after the killing of George Floyd,” Walz said. “I think again, stories will be written, and they will be written about it for a while. I’m proud of Minnesota’s response. I’m proud of Minnesota’s first responders that were out there from firefighters to police to National Guard to citizens, was out there.”
Jensen took the question as an opportunity to question Walz’s support for first responders.
“You heard this: Governor Walz just told you, ‘I’m proud of Minnesota’s response,’ referring to the riots in May and June 2020. Wow,” Jensen said. “This is not a one-time situation. There is a reason the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association has unanimously endorsed me.”
The candidates also spoke about the $250 million Feeding Our Future fraud investigation. Jensen argued that Walz could have stopped the scheme much sooner.
“Governor Walz and his team could have stopped this anywhere along the line,” Jensen said. “But when things were getting hot in the kitchen for Governor Walz, because basically it looks like there’s a cover-up. Two questions loom large in our minds. What did Governor Walz know and when did he know it?
Walz, for his part, said both state and federal agencies need to do a better job of enforcing the rules on how public funds are disbursed.
“During COVID, the federal government relaxed some of their regulations and they sent out what they had to have help to states in unprecedented numbers,” the governor said. “Now you have to make sure these safeguards are in place? Absolute priority. When the Minnesota Department of Education found this, they alerted the FBI. Now it’s an ongoing investigation. I guess we’ll get more clarity when they start coming to it.”
When Jensen got a chance to respond, he doubled down and laid the blame squarely on the Walz administration.
“You just heard a smoke screen. This is not about the federal government, this is about the state of Minnesota, and the Office of the Legislative Auditor should have been notified,” Jensen said.
The two also clashed over the finance bill that stalled in the legislature in May.
Walz said Jensen urged Republican senators to block the bill, which would have provided tax breaks and rebates, but Jensen said it also would have increased state spending by billions of dollars.
Lack of debates under microscope
The one-hour debate between the 2022 candidates for Minnesota governor was held in Rochester and was broadcast only on Greater Minnesota television stations. It was the second of three scheduled debates between Walz and Jensen, but the only one to be televised.
Walz turned down offers to debate on at least three Twin Cities television stations, including KSTP-TV.
“Tim Walz is ahead, but he’s not an insurmountable favorite,” says Carleton College political analyst Steven Schier. “He’s probably ahead in the single digits, probably the high single digits, but it’s not safe territory in three weeks.” Schier says that while minimizing the number of debates is clearly a strategy for the Walz campaign, that doesn’t mean it will work. Although he says that Jensen needs the debates more than Walz. “The two have to come face to face for Jensen to try to close that gap, because the further away Walz is personally from Jensen in this race, the better it is for Walz.”
The only other time Walz and Jensen debated was eleven weeks ago at Farmfest near Redwood Falls on Aug. 3. It was only seen by a few hundred people who attended the debate and people who watched highlights on TV or online.
This will be the first time in at least 40 years that the candidates for Minnesota governor will not debate in prime time on Twin Cities television. The only other debate currently scheduled is at noon, Friday, October 28 on Minnesota Public Radio.
KSTP-TV will host a “Minnesota Debate Night” that will air nationwide in prime time on Sunday, October 23rd. Walz declined to participate, so Jensen will face questions from a panel of reporters alone. The major party candidates for attorney general and secretary of state have all agreed to participate.
We have highlights from Tuesday’s “Nightcast” debate on 5 Eyewitness News at 10.