U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and her November opponent, Republican state Rep. Kurt Bills, pulled no punches in a vigorous, often contentious debate at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday.
The match-up drew an overflow crowd to Minnesota Public Radio’s booth on a steamy day at the state fairgrounds. The crowd was pretty evenly split between supporters of the two, and they were feisty throughout, cheering or booing after most of the candidates’ responses.
That just played into what was already a heated debate between Klobuchar and Bills: The incumbent frequently called her opponent and his positions “extreme,” and the challenger tried to tie Klobuchar to the inability of the Democratically controlled Senate to pass legislation.
“This election is not Republican vs. Democrat,” Bills said. “It’s America vs. Washington D.C.”
Candidates show their differences on the budget
Budgetary issues took center stage, and the candidates sparred on taxes, the federal budget and monetary policy. The two couldn’t be further apart on any of them.
Bills said he backs a flat-tax plan that he said would simplify the tax code and remove deductions for the wealthy.
“You want to get rid of loopholes for the wealthy,” Bills said. “I’m your guy, because I’ll get rid of all of them.”
But Klobuchar said such a plan would invariably lead to lower overall taxes on the wealthy, and she said she backs a plan pushed by President Barack Obama that would end the George W. Bush-era tax cuts on income over $250,000, which she said would raise $700 billion over 10 years.
Klobuchar went sharply at Bills’ support for establishing a gold- and silver-based currency and a bill he sponsored in the Legislature to study the viability of introducing a state currency. She vigorously defended the Federal Reserve system, which Bills opposes, and said his monetary policy consists of plans that are “not mainstream ideas for the future of this country.”
On the budget, Bills went hard at Klobuchar and Senate Democrats for not passing a budget resolution for more than three years. Klobuchar hit back and said the deep-cutting budget plan introduced by Sen. Rand Paul and supported by Bills is “extreme,” and defended Congress’ work on the budget deficit, specifically last summer’s passage of the Budget Control Act, which saves $2.2 trillion over 10 years.
But Bills said he knows what’s best for the middle class — as a high-school economics teacher, he’s a bona fide member of it. He pushed back on Klobuchar’s opposition to the Paul budget (which failed in the Senate16-83) and said he supports turning Medicare into a voucher program, as proposed by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.
“If you actually cared about the middle class, you’re looking at it,” he said. “I’d be proud to go be the poorest member of the United States Senate. We need to start sending people like me there to solve some of these problems.
Klobuchar hits Bills as ineffective
The two were closer, but barely, on the matter of Afghanistan, a topic that consumed a few minutes during the middle of the debate: Bills supports an immediate, “aggressive” withdrawal from the region and Klobuchar said she backed the president’s plan to begin a withdrawal from the region next fall, adding, “We simply cannot stay there indefinitely; we need to bring out troops home.”
The pair grappled with agriculture issues as well, as they did at their first debate at Farmfest earlier this month. They also discussed global warming, abortion rights (Klobuchar supports a women’s right to choose, Bills highlighted his pro-life voting record) and the marriage amendment (Bills voted to put it on the ballot in November, and Klobuchar said its only purpose to divide people in an election year).
In general, Klobuchar said her record as a bipartisan dealmaker in Washington would help her most effectively represent Minnesotans, and she rattled off a list of issues she’s worked on to prove it, including a troop benefits bill with Republican Rep. John Kline and legislation to build a new St. Croix Bridge with Rep. Michele Bachmann.
She knocked Bills meanwhile, for what she called an ineffective two years as a back-bencher in St. Paul.
“I’m sorry, Rep. Bills, but you haven’t passed one bill that even got signed into law,” she said. Bills noted that the Legislature had approved a veterans jobs bill he introduced, but DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it.
Bills sees an opening on the economy
Klobuchar has a huge fundraising and polling edge in this race, and Bills recently acknowledged that if the election were held now, she’d win.
But Klobuchar, the clear front-runner, said she had no qualms engaging an opponent on his record, no matter the lead she might hold right now.
“They need to understand as people are looking at the choice they’re making, who they’re voting for,” she said. “My major focus will continue to be the same, but I really wanted to make clear where he was on the issues.”
Bills said his goal has been to be polling within 15 points of Klobuchar by Sept. 15, the same margin Paul Wellstone trailed Rudy Boschwitz in 1990, a race he won. He said he’s still confident he can make a race of it, especially given an economy that is growing slowly.
“I think with the economy the way it is, every incumbent in America is terrified and should be terrified because they have to run on their record,” he said. “I think a lot of families who have been hit like we have are probably thinking the same way. They’ll be looking at any incumbent and thinking, do they really deserve to go back?”
The pair have two more debates scheduled before the end of the election, including one the weekend before the election.
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry