WASHINGTON — After months of debate-by-proxy, from campaign ads to press releases, Sen. Al Franken and his Republican opponent, Mike McFadden will meet for their first debate of the general election on Wednesday in Duluth.
Yes, the pair squared off at FarmFest in August, but the no-rebuttal format and crowded stage turned that forum into a side-by-side press conference. In 2012, candidates at the debates sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce could have their fill of rebuttals and rejoinders, so Wednesday morning’s event should prove more enlightening than anything we’ve seen so far this cycle.
MinnPost will carry the UpTake’s live stream of the debate Wednesday at 8:00 a.m. Until then, here’s five things to look for on Wednesday morning.
Mining and Chinese steel: Wednesday’s debate is in the 8th District, so the discussion will undoubtedly turn to mining.
McFadden has turned to mining frequently during his campaign and will likely repeat his call that the federal government speed up the permitting process for a copper-nickel mine in Hoyt Lakes. He’s hammered Franken for not doing the same.
Franken has said he backs that project but wants to let the permitting process run its course before rushing into anything. Franken and Democrats have also developed their own potentially potent mining-based attack against McFadden, that the Republican wouldn’t oppose using Chinese steel over American-made steel in any potential Keystone pipeline construction. He’ll likely deploy that if the question of pipelines, a McFadden favorite, comes up.
From the gubernatorial candidates to Franken and McFadden and congressional foes Rep. Rick Nolan and Stewart Mills, every campaign with a stake in northeastern Minnesota has targeted Iron Range voters this cycle as the 8th District continues to undergo a political metamorphosis. Franken’s and McFadden’s positions on mining are well-established and we’re unlikely to hear anything new from them at this point, but Wednesday will give them a chance to at least say their piece to each other’s faces.
Fighting over terrorism: Franken and McFadden largely agree on what Congress has done to combat the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East: Franken voted to arm and train some rebel factions in Syria, and McFadden has said he’d do the same.
But McFadden has said more should be done to combat terrorist recruitment in the United States, a topic of special importance to Minnesota. He’s proposed stripping U.S. passports from Americans who go overseas to fight, while Franken has said he’s working with the federal officials to find a solution to the problem.
Beyond just terrorism, that is a theme to look for throughout the debate: McFadden, the challenger, will push his platform and try to get Franken to take a position on it. But as an incumbent, Franken will do as he’s done so far this campaign: emphasize his experience and remind voters about the work he’s already done while in office.
McFadden on health care: McFadden introduced an Affordable Care Act replacement plan last week, so if health care and the ACA come up in this debate (and they should), expect McFadden to tout the new plan.
McFadden says he wants to repeal most of the ACA (save some of its popular provisions) and replace it with a slate of oft-introduced Republican health care proposals: tort reform, expanded health care savings accounts, insurance sales across state lines, reform plans forged by the states, etc. Franken supports the ACA and has defended some of its early success.
While health care is likely to come up in the debate, Wednesday’s most important health care news will come a few hours later when state officials preview the cost of MNsure health insurance plans for 2015. If there’s a rate hike, Minnesota Republicans up and down the ticket will again look to use Obamacare against their Democratic opponents.
“97 Percent” and taxes: McFadden’s campaign has gone hard at Franken’s voting record, citing studies that show him voting with President Obama 97 percent of the time and hitting him for votes to raise taxes. In a head-to-head format, that’s likely to come up once again.
Franken, for his part, has defended his voting record as “for the people of Minnesota” (The AP broke down the 97 percent claim here). On TPT Almanac Friday, he dismissed the voting studies as “odd” and launched into a recitation of bipartisan work he’s done so far in the Senate. Franken could use some variation of that in a debate, but that depends on how feisty the candidates get on Wednesday morning.
And indeed that’s the big question heading into this debate: How aggressive will Franken and McFadden be with one another? In 2012, the Duluth Chamber and Duluth News-Tribune moderators gave candidates wide latitude to actually engage with each other in their debates. On the U.S. Senate side, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican challenger Kurt Bills were mostly hands-off, but the 8th District debate was another story.
Nolan and then-Rep. Chip Cravaack tussled over everything from tax cuts to environmentalism to how best to incentivize private sector economic growth, and the moderators gave them a lot of leeway to have a real back-and-forth, an actual debate. The question is whether something similar will happen between Franken and McFadden on Wednesday.
At FarmFest, McFadden tried hard to bait Franken into going head-to-head, but the format was such that Franken could simply ignore him for an hour and do his own thing. But since then, Franken and his campaign have been much more aggressive with McFadden (just look at their campaign ads). McFadden, the challenger, should be raring for a fight on Wednesday, but Franken will have the opportunity to land some blows of his own — if he decides he wants to.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry