At their worst, political debates are a string of talking points, rehearsed zingers, feigned outrage. At their best, they can produce a series of moments.
Tuesday night’s penultimate debate between Gov. Tim Walz and GOP challenger Scott Jensen was more the former than the latter. But within the confines of a strict format with questions posed by regional TV reporters that focused on issues, not politics, it did bring a few of those moments over the course of 60 minutes in a TV studio in Rochester.
The Money Quote Moments
The format did not provide for opening statements and the debate jumped right into questions about health care, policing, mining, agriculture, budget and taxes. That left the closing statements for times when the candidates could unleash prepared speeches. Neither wasted the chance.
“You get a choice here about a vision for Minnesota,” Walz said. “One that questions our elections, one that tells women they can’t make their choices, one that defunds our schools. Or, you get an opportunity that brought so many of us to Minnesota. An opportunity for a state that is inclusive. You know what? We do spend a little bit more on health care. We do spend a little bit more on education. We do spend a little bit more on our roads. … We know you invest in the future, that that’s what comes back to you ten-fold over. It’s a state that says when problems come up, it’s not enough to just complain about it. Folks that want to drive us apart aren’t gonna do it.”
Jensen closed with an indictment of Walz’s first term. “Everyone … has endured some pretty trying times. I think everyone’s felt some heartbreak from watching people’s lives turned upside down, and I think everyone has grasped, at some level, that Tim Walz has failed. It got away from him. He tried. He repeated mistakes. The question is, who is going to step forward? … You have the power to take back your rights, you have the power to turn your agencies – instead of being heavy handed, punitive agencies. You have the ability to step forward.”
The make-the-campaign-manager-proud moments
Both candidates expected a question about abortion. Jensen stuck with the GOP tactic of saying state courts have found a right to the procedure in the Minnesota Constitution, and the next governor has no power to reverse that. “As governor, I won’t ban abortion. I can’t,” Jensen said.
Walz responded, “Scott was very clear in May. He mocked me and said ‘no kidding Sherlock. I’m running for governor to get things done. I’m going to ban abortion. That’s not news.’” Jensen’s position changed after the June Dobbs decision that found no right to abortion in the U.S. Constitution. “I didn’t have to practice 40 years of medicine to change a position on health care in the final weeks once we saw how unpopular this was,” Walz added.
Jensen tried to insert into his response to a question about the opioid epidemic criticisms of Walz’s handling of the alleged theft of up to $250 million in pandemic relief funds by vendors who pocketed the money rather than use it to feed children. The state, he said, could sue opioid manufacturers but not the perpetrators of that fraud.
Admonished by the panel to wait for that topic, Jensen’s chance came and he was ready.
“Honestly, I think the governor’s office was lazy … the fact is, the governor had every right to believe that fraud may be taking place with this Feeding Our Future’s $250 million.” State law requires agencies to inform the Office of Legislative Auditor if they have knowledge of misspending and neither the governor’s office nor the Department of Education did so.
“What did Gov. Walz know, and when did he know it?” Jensen added.
Walz has asserted that his agency discovered the fraud, tried to stop payments and was blocked by the courts. It then reported it to the FBI which investigated and charges were filed against 49 people. But his sometimes legalistic explanations were no match for allegations of waste, fraud and abuse in government.
The didn’t-see-that-coming moments
Jensen and Walz agreed on legislation to increase fees on opioids makers and distributors to pay for treatment and care for children whose parents are addicted. But rather than mention that working-together history, Walz cited an article Jensen commented on that was titled “Confessions of a prescription drug pusher” in which he described how he and other doctors prescribed opioids after being influenced by drug salesmen.
“They didn’t do it alone,” Walz said of the companies, accusing Jensen of being wined and dined with “expensive meals.”
For Jensen, shifting the focus on the campaign away from abortion and toward inflation and crime is a priority. In response to a question about preventing school shootings, Jensen talked about the need to keep kids and teachers safe then awkwardly pivoted to blast Walz’s response to riots in the spring of 2020 and the increase in violent crime. And he ended by giving Walz a nickname.
“This is a product of a lawlessness that swept our state, and it started with Tim Walz delaying in May and June of 2020. He unleashed a poisonous spread of lawlessness. Arguably he is the godfather of the crime epidemic that has swept our country,” Jensen said.
The ‘wait, what?’ moments
Walz’s came in defense of his role during the riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul that followed the murder of George Floyd. The delay in mobilizing the State Patrol and the National Guard added to the length of the unrest which included the destruction of a police precinct from which officers narrowly escaped.
Despite knowing it was coming, Walz rambled through an answer, noting that the unrest was beyond what had been seen in the state and was unexpected. He said he was in the room having to make decisions while critics like Jensen were on the sidelines. But he then said, “I’m proud of Minnesota’s response, I’m proud of Minnesota’s first responders who were out there, from firefighters to police to the National Guard to citizens who were out there.”
Jensen jumped on it. “You heard it here. Gov. Walz just told you ‘I’m proud of Minnesota’s response?’ Wow. Burn that into your psyche Minnesota.” Afterward, Jensen said that moment could be appearing in TV ads soon.
One questioner asked the opponents to say something nice about the other. Jensen, who went first, paused for several seconds before saying that he’d thought about this question a lot before, yet came up with an answer that suggested he hadn’t really.
“I think Tim Walz is an affable individual who … has a wonderful smile.”