After millions of dollars spent on ads contrasting the two candidates running in Minnesota’s 8th District, the duo faced off for the first time in Duluth Tuesday morning.
Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack and his opponent, DFLer Rick Nolan, sparred extensively on fiscal policy, especially health care, in their first head-to-head debate of the election. In the 8th District, where Cravaack and Nolan are expected to wage Minnesota’s most competitive U.S. House race, airwaves have been saturated with ads for and against the two, most recently focusing on the candidates’ position on Medicare, and that was topic No. 1.
Cravaack defended a plan pushed by House Republicans that would allow future Medicare recipients to use government payments to purchase private health care.
“We have a plan. I’d be more than happy to look at another one, but unfortunately there isn’t one,” he said. “Doing nothing is a dereliction of duty.”
Nolan, as Democrats have done nationwide, equated the Republican plan with “ending Medicare as we know it.” He called himself “as strong a supporter of Medicare and Social Security in the Democratic Party as you’ll find,” and proposed to eliminate waste and fraud to ensure the system is solvent going forward.
The two were equally far apart on the Affordable Care Act: Nolan called it “a good first step” toward universal care, while Cravaack slammed it for its forthcoming tax increases and increased regulations. He’s voted to repeal the law multiple times during his tenure in Congress.
When it comes to creating jobs, both said they opposed the government “artificially creating a demand,” but they differed on what that actually meant. Cravaack said it was increased spending, and called for fewer regulations and lower taxes to spur hiring.
“To get demand for your product, you have to get people back to work,” he said.
Nolan’s response: “You can’t artificially create a demand, and you sure can’t create it by providing tax breaks for small businesses when they don’t have demand for their product.” He called for reinvesting government spending, using the savings from ending the wars overseas to grow the middle class.
“We’re going to build this economy from the middle out, not from the top down,” he said.
For an election cycle that has rarely focused on foreign policy, Cravaack and Nolan had a testy exchange on the subject of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Nolan has long called for ending the conflicts in the Middle East, calling them “wars of choice” and slammed Republicans and Cravaack for spending on “nation building abroad” but not at home.
“The wars of choice, as you call it, sir, are in response to 9/11,” Cravaack replied. “We didn’t look for this fight, it came to our shores.”
“Nobody believes more strongly than I do in a good strong national defense,” Nolan said, “but that doesn’t mean we have to keep doing this nation building where it’s not wanted, it’s not welcome, they keep blowing it up faster than we can build it, and it doesn’t mean we need to have a military base in every nook and cranny of the Earth.”
Congress and transportation
The debate turned to much more local issues, like mining and transportation funding.
Cravaack said he’s been focusing on rolling back government regulations and speeding up the permitting process to help create mining jobs in the 8th District. He’s been in favor of allowing states like Minnesota to set mining regulations rather than the federal government. Nolan said he felt permitting could be sped up, but defended the regulations in place as necessary and effective.
On transportation, Cravaack highlighted a two-year transportation bill Congress passed this session, a bill that included a Cravaack amendment that requires transportation projects use American steel, much of which could come from iron mines in the 8th.
“We wanted to make sure that the right dollars went to the right projects,” he said. “We wanted to make sure the gas tax was used wisely.”
But Nolan said Cravaack turned his back on 8th District-specific projects, like a new airport terminal in Duluth and the rail lines between the Northland and the Twin Cities.
“I’ve just been very, very disappointed to see you coming out against, speaking against, voting against the funding for so many of these essential transportation services,” he said.
Time in Congress
Through their television ads, Republicans have slammed Nolan for what they call his ineffective time in Congress between 1975 and 1981, and Cravaack did so again during the debate.
He hit Nolan for skipping votes and voting to increase in Congressional pay by 42 percent. He highlighted Nolan’s statements about spending fewer days in session than those spent fundraising, and defended his own record of constituent outreach: 29 town halls and 17 tele-town halls in the district during his first term.
Nolan said he voted on more than 90 percent of the votes taken when he was in the House, and said the votes he skipped were those of little consequence, like approving the congressional minutes. He supported the pay increases, he said, because he had a family to support, and plugged his record as one of the most “respected members of Congress.”
“You can’t cherry pick a little period in time and call that my voting record,” he said.
In the end, Cravaack defended not just his record in Congress, but that of the Republican-controlled House as a whole. “We have two very different courses that America is planning to take,” he said. “One course is a course of solvency, prosperity and opportunity for our children and the next generation of Americans. The other is more debt, more deficit, more decline.”
Nolan put it a different way.
“We just have a strong disagreement as to the direction this country needs to go and the way forward,” he said. “I think we offer voters here in the 8th District a pretty doggone clear choice.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry