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In Farmfest forum, voters get a first look at the Tina Smith-Jason Lewis Senate contest

The wide-ranging debate touched on major issues like the environment, immigration and health care.

Sen. Tina Smith and senate candidate Jason Lewis shown during Tuesday's forum held over Zoom.
Sen. Tina Smith and senate candidate Jason Lewis shown during Tuesday's forum held over Zoom.
Screen shot

At least every two years, candidates have the same ritual: gather over a muddy field to talk about agricultural policy and how they disagree with their opponents.

This year, at Farmfest, there was no field: just two diametrically opposed candidates for Senate talking over Zoom. The candidates are Jason Lewis, the endorsed Republican candidate, who served one term in the U.S. House representing Minnesota’s Second District; and Sen. Tina Smith, Minnesota’s former lieutenant governor who was appointed to fill the Senate vacancy left after Al Franken’s resignation, was elected in her own right in 2018, and now must run for re-election just two years later.

It was one of the first public meetings for Smith and Lewis, and their discussion of environmental policy, immigration and health care gave voters a first look at some of the key issues that will shape the campaign for Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seat in the fall.

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Environmental policy

One area of agreement between the candidates: Neither supports the Green New Deal, a policy platform that advocates for a massive U.S. shift toward sustainable energy sources and carbon emissions.

“I oppose the Green New Deal vehemently,” Lewis said. “I’m not interested in meeting those sorts of folks half way.”

Smith agreed. “I don’t support the Green New Deal,” she said. “I think you know that.”

That doesn’t mean the candidates agree on what environmental policy should look like. Lewis has a zero-percent scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters for his time in the House voting on major environmental legislation, while Smith maintains 100 percent. 

Smith highlighted the economic benefits of green energy technology. “Right now, there are major, major technological innovations that could be happening here in the United States, that are happening in China. And instead we need to bring that home,” she said. “That’s going to help Minnesota agriculture, as we think about expanding the wind energy and solar energy, that becomes a way for Minnesota agriculture to diversify their revenue streams. And it helps local governments as well.”

Lewis said he supports the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, a $2.6 billion dollar pipeline project that cuts across tribal land in Minnesota. “Only Democrats, Tina Smith, and the environmental groups are opposed to that,” Lewis said.

But Smith hasn’t publicly opposed the pipeline. In July of last year, Molly Morrissey, a spokeswoman for Smith, said the Senator “believes we need to continue with a rigorous process to make sure this project is safe for Minnesota.”

U.S. Senate Forum from American Farm Bureau on Vimeo.

Temporary work visas

On agricultural policy, the two candidates rarely clashed substantively. David Preisler, the CEO of the Minnesota Pork Producers, asked the candidates how they intend to deal with the current immigration system, especially regarding farmers’ reliance on laborers with temporary work visas.

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Both candidates said they support H-2A visas, temporary agricultural work visa programs.

Lewis argued that, in addition to easing access to H-2A visas, work requirements need to be attached to the food stamp program in order to encourage people to work (something Lewis and House Republicans advocated for when he was in office). “You got to get job training, or you got to go out and work part time,” he said. “That would have got them into the labor market on the ladder of opportunity.”

Smith, who serves on the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, said visa restrictions need to end. “It is completely counter our needs in Minnesota agriculture to clamp down on these visiting a work visas when we should be making it easier,” she said. “I think that we need programs that are market-based and that have the kind of flexibility that we need.”

Health care

Kevin Paap, President of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, wanted to broaden the conversation beyond the idea that farmers only care about agricultural policy. “Certainly the availability and the affordability of health care keeps many farmers up at night,” said Paap. “What do you do to support solutions for rural Minnesota health care?”

The difference between the two candidates could be boiled down to the party lines: Smith wants to build on Obamacare, while Lewis wants to repeal it and prevent any form of a single-payer health care system.

“She wants to keep Obamacare,” Lewis said. “I don’t.”

Lewis opposes a “single-payer, government-driven system,” because he believes it would squeeze private rural hospitals, resulting in less services around the state. Industry associations have said this could be true, while other experts have suggested that the healthcare system could benefit from hospitals paying more standardized costs. 

Smith did not advocate for Medicare-for-all; instead, she wants to build on the Affordable Care Act. “The number one thing that I hear about from family, farmers and folks in rural areas is their worries about the skyrocketing cost of health care,” Smith said. “And, you know, I am for affordable, good quality health care that you can have no matter who you are and no matter where you live.”

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Smith again emphasized bipartisan legislation she’s working on.

“I have a bill that I’m working on with Lisa Murkowski to expand maternity care and rural communities because I’ve heard from moms and families all over rural Minnesota about having to drive hours and hours to get to maternity here,” Smith said. “So these are practical, common sense things that we can work on in a bipartisan way.”

Their pitches

According to Lewis, he is not part of the polarized environment today in politics. Instead, that environment is created by people like Smith. “I do think that the polarization is not healthy,” Lewis said. “And I think it quite frankly, a lot of it’s due to the radical nature of some of the actors these days.”

Lewis said in all, there is one question voters have to ask themselves: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Since my opponent’s been in office is agriculture better off?”

“I don’t think it is,” he said.

Smith ended on a different note. Rather than talking about Lewis, she instead only emphasized the current challenges faced by Minnesota’s farmers.

“We’ve seen low prices, trade disputes, bad weather, and now COVID, but you know that I have been there with you every step of the way,” she said.

“And so I ask for your support so that we can continue working together, for the good of Minnesota, for rural communities in Minnesota, and for family farmers.”