At the first formal debate of Republicans trying to capture the seat that GOP Rep. John Kline is vacating in the Second Congressional District, there was minimal difference in the five candidates’ approach to federal policy.
There was, however, a difference in style. Former radio host Jason Lewis, state Rep. Pam Myrha, former state Sen. John Howe, businessman David Gerson and newcomer David Benson-Staebler staked out territory that could be described, respectively, as voluble, nice, workmanlike, passionate and tentative.
At a well-attended forum in Inver Grove Heights, each candidate came out strongly in favor of education vouchers, the elimination or drastic reduction in the scope of the Department of Energy, and stronger borders to control immigration.
Questions on Social Security and taxes produced the most difference of opinions, as well as an opportunity for Lewis to display the skills he accumulated as a talk show host.
Gerson and Howe advocated means testing to determine future Social Security benefits. Lewis responded with a history lesson and policy detail. “If you means test, and even FDR understood this when it was created, you turn Social Security into a welfare program… You won’t have any support,” he said. “Means testing or lifting the cap on taxes is not the answer. The answer is turning COLA benefits into a chained CPI and raising the retirement age for younger workers.”
On reforming the tax code, Howe called for a consumption tax, a policy he said was revenue neutral when promoted it to balance the state budget. That response led to one-on-one charges and counters between Howe and Lewis.
“Especially for you seniors out there, after a lifetime of paying income taxes, now you’re going to get hit with a 23 percent consumption tax at the federal level,” Lewis said. “And second of all John, I would say in your sales tax hike of $800 million that you were negotiating with Gov. Dayton, the Senate majority leader said there were no offsets in the bill, it was just a pure tax increase…. And my old buddy John Howe was the swing vote in the Senate taxes committee to get the Vikings stadium on the floor. He then voted against it, so I guess he was for it before he was against it.”
Howe seemed startled at the comments. “I’m glad that Mr. Lewis sees me as the candidate to beat,” he said, defending his vote for the new Vikings stadium. “I was voting for that stadium when it was user fees, user fees only.”
Then it was Howe’s turn to pounce. “Now Mr. Jason’s walked off his radio show and started this gold coin thing,” he said. (Lewis started a website, Galt.io, that uses a virtual currency to invest in libertarian causes.) “That’s more like a Ponzi scheme than anything else. And now he’s here looking for a job.”
Gerson and Myhra were muted compared to Lewis and Howe, but each had a cluster of supporters who clapped and cheered at their responses. Benson-Staebler, a St. Olaf graduate with a background in political consulting, sparked some curiosity in the crowd but seemed unclear in his answers.
The debate concluded with acknowledgement that the GOP candidate will have a tough race against the eventual Democratic nominee in a district that, once safely Republican, is seen as a toss-up next November.