DULUTH, Minn. — After millions spent on ads trying to make their points for them, Rep. Rick Nolan and his Republican opponent, Stewart Mills, met on stage for the first time on Tuesday and confirmed what we all knew — from assault weapons to the Affordable Care Act, these two don’t agree on much.
Tuesday’s debate was the only one so far scheduled between the 8th District candidates in the race considered by many to be the most competitive in Minnesota this cycle. As such, both Mills and Nolan were looking to land a knockout blow against each other — Nolan was the aggressor more often than not, though Mills had a go at big chunks of Nolan’s record.
Nolan cast himself as a populist and a champion of the middle class and slammed Mills for pushing high-income tax cuts while opposing a higher minimum wage. He defended the ACA “and the good things it has done,” while hitting Mills for wanting to repeal the law, even its popular provisions.
Mills said Nolan was working to distort his policy proposals, and essentially equated him to a flip-flopper on mining, a key issue in northeastern Minnesota. He filled in more details on a tax plan that has been the focal point of Democrats’ attacks against him, and time and again defended himself against a very feisty Nolan.
Taxes and the minimum wage
From his opening statement, Nolan looked to paint Mills, subtly or not, as an out-of-touch millionaire who would give rich people tax cuts at the expense of the middle class. That’s been a theme of nearly every ad targeting Mills so far this campaign, and it’s based on Mills’ support for what he calls a “flatter, fairer tax code.”
He expanded on that during Tuesday’s debate, saying he wanted a tax code with two lower tax rates and a smattering of deductions for everything from charitable giving to education expenses and mortgage interest. The plan would help the more than 80 percent of 8th District small businesses that file taxes as individuals, he said.
“It has to be flatter, fairer, it has to be budget neutral, and it has to be so simple you can fill it out on the back of a post card and send it in,” he said.
Nolan said that wasn’t the right way to grow jobs, and equated the plan to offering “tax cuts for super-millionaires and billionaires.” He said he supported offering tax incentives targeted at helping businesses expand instead.
On the minimum wage, Nolan offered one of what became increasingly less-veiled references to Mills’ family business, the Fleet Farm retail chain, when he said it would take a minimum wage worker a week to earn what Mills was making on his executive’s salary over the course of the hour and a half debate.
“The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the tax policies are exacerbating and accelerating that and in no small part responsible for that,” he said. “Nobody is for penalizing the rich. We just want the rich and the powerful to pay their fair share.”
Nolan defends the ACA
On the Affordable Care Act, Nolan offered a defense of the law, especially the handful of ACA provisions that are proven popular with voters: ending the pre-existing conditions ban, allowing young people to say on their parents’ health plans, lowering costs for women. He asked: “You really oppose those things and want to repeal all of those important advancements?”
Mills argues the ACA had turned the health care economy into a “welfare state,” and that it failed in its goals of increasing access and decreasing costs. He proposed a plan of well-worn Republican health care reform ideas — tort reform, insurance sales across state lines — and said that the free market would take care of costs that way.
Health care “shouldn’t be between the patient, the government, the insurance company and the doctor,” he said. “It should be between the patient and the doctor.”
A terse exchange on guns
One of the testiest exchanges of the day came on gun rights. So far this year, Republicans have tried to portray Nolan as anti-second amendment and emphasized the “F” grade he’s received from the National Rifle Association. Mills accused Nolan of supporting a handgun ban during his first stint in Congress in the 1970s and hit him for supporting a potential assault weapons ban when he returned to the House last year.
“Rep. Nolan has more than earned his failing grade, and in Washington, D.C. I will stand up for your Second Amendment rights,” he said.
Nolan turned the issue back on Mills and, indirectly, Fleet Farm, hypothetically wondering whether Mills — who came to political prominence through an online video defending gun rights at one of his stores — would support expanding background checks for gun purchases.
“Do you really want the right to sell guns and arms to people who are convicted, violent criminals and terrorists, and people who have been found with serious mental illness?” he said. “Do you want the right to sell guns to those people? What do you have against the background checks?”
Mills called that “way over the line” and said the government should more aggressively enforce background check laws already on the books.
Nolan had to thread a needle of sorts when mining came up. On one hand, he said he agreed with Mills that the PolyMet copper-nickel mine should secure regulatory approval, but on the other — with anti-PolyMet Green Party candidate Ray Sandman sitting next to him — he defended the environmental regulations that Republicans say have delayed that process.
“I submit that we now have the technology, we now have the brain power, all we have to have is the resolve and the will to do it right,” he said. “I submit that we must be compliant with good, sound environmental rules and regulations.”
Mills accused Nolan of vacillating on his support for the project. And either way, he said that after a nine-year long permitting process, it was time to move approve the project.
“PolyMet is amazingly well-thought out, the science, the engineering is there, there’s no reason we shouldn’t go forward with it,” he said.
‘Waves and roller coasters’
After the debate, Nolan admitted that he risked shedding environmentalist votes by supporting PolyMet, but said he’s “comfortable with my position in the middle as someone who supports mining and supports strong environmental standards.”
As for his digs, subtle and not, at Fleet Farm, Nolan said his goal wasn’t to try to make it personal.
“Mills Fleet Farm has been a wonderfully good company, the Mills family is a wonderfully good family, I have no problems with them at all, they’ve been good citizens and they deserve to be recognized as such,” he said. “This is not about Mills Fleet Farm, this about whether or not we’re going to give more tax cuts to super millionaires and super billionaires.”
Mills, as he’s done with the wealth-based attack ads running against him, said he has “nothing to apologize for” when it comes to Fleet Farm, and he said his debate strategy was to stick to his script no matter Nolan’s swipes against him. A rookie candidate fresh off his first-ever political debate, Mills said campaign life was like “waves and roller coasters.”
“You’re up and then you’re down,” he said. “It’s a learning curve, and it’s something that’s very positive being able to advocate for something you believe in.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry