On the night that a new gubernatorial poll showed Independence Party candidate Tom Horner making the biggest gains, the three candidates held their 11th debate of a campaign that still has seven weeks to run. It was the best by far.
What separated Wednesday’s event from its predecessors was moderator Rick Kupchella, the former television news journalist who is the founder of BringMeTheNews website.
Kupchella didn’t allow Horner, DFLer Mark Dayton and Republican Tom Emmer to simply recite their oft-practiced debate lines. He didn’t even let them get away with extolling the virtues of their respective plans to balance the budget.
Instead, before a large crowd at the Pantages Theater in downtown Minneapolis, Kupchella pushed the candidates to deal with the reality of actually governing.
At this point, by the way, it remains a toss-up as to who will end up trying to govern.
New poll shows two-way dead heat with Horner gaining
The USA/KSTP poll shows a virtual dead heat, with Dayton narrowly ahead at 38 percent — down from where he was in the same poll last month. Emmer is up slightly to 36 percent. Horner has made the biggest jump since KSTP last was in the field, moving from 9 to 18 percent.
The poll results, as others have, show that both Dayton and Emmer are having difficulty rallying their party bases.
Although the candidates hadn’t seen the results of the KSTP poll at debate time, both Dayton and Emmer had addressed the difficulty of rallying their political forces.
Emmer fell back on the old cliché “The only poll that matters is Nov. 2” in talking about why many in his party seem reluctant to back him.
Dayton was more responsive.
“Campaigns are works in progress,” he said, adding that after a heated campaign, it’s not surprising that supporters of Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza didn’t immediately leap to his bandwagon. He has 48 days to bring them over, he said.
But it’s those undecideds that leave IP supporters and Horner with hopes of picking up more steam.
Momentum, said Horner before seeing the KSTP poll, has meant more revenue, and more revenue has allowed him to get his message to more people. The key, of course, is whether as more people hear Horner’s middle-ground message about “reform”and “knocking down silos” they’ll swing his way.
A crucial question
Kupchella did ask Horner a crucial question: With no real party apparatus, no party representation in the Legislature, how could he get legislators to buy into his plans?
“My whole career has been about engaging Minnesotans,” replied Horner, who has left the public relations firm he helped found to devote himself full time to the campaign. He talked of how he would build “credibility” by surrounding himself with a cabinet of experts, as Jesse Ventura did, not political cronies.
“I’m not asking people to forever turn their backs on lifetime loyalties [to the major political parties],” Horner added. But for the next four years, until the state gets its financial house in order, he said he believes he can “engage Minnesotans” into becoming involved in the greater good of the state. At this time, “only an independent can forge consensus,” he said.
Kupchella fired off the same question to Emmer, who he described as coming from “the far right of the right spectrum.”
Emmer did not accept Kupchella’s premise.
“Is it extreme to be responsible for yourself?” Emmer asked.
Kupchella reminded Emmer of a comment he once made about Arizona’s controversial immigration law. “It’s a wonderful first step,” Emmer had been quoted as saying.
Wasn’t that an extreme statement?
Emmer said the comment was a sound bite and not representative of his views. He said that he came up with that answer because “the federal government has completely abdicated its responsibility. … If you are a nation of laws, enforce the border so that people can continue to come to this country legally. That’s all it’s about.”
Yet, later in the debate, Emmer had one of those responses that many would consider extreme.
The question, from the audience: Should English be the official language of Minnesota?
“I think English should be the official language,” said Emmer.
Horner had a field day with that.
“I would think anyone who believes in a limited role for government wouldn’t mandate language,” Horner said, looking at Emmer. He talked about all the languages that could be heard on Lake Street in Minneapolis and the “richness” the immigrants have brought with them. Mandating language would not be on the Horner agenda, he concluded.
“Well said,” said Dayton to Horner.
Sharp questions for all
No one was spared Kupchella’s sharp questions.
Early on, he asked Dayton about his struggles with alcoholism and depression.
“Stress can trigger depression,” Kupchella said to Dayton, adding that the governor’s office will be “a pressure cooker.”
“I’ve dealt with stress all my life,” said Dayton “I was a hockey goalie.”
But Dayton also took on the question seriously, noting again that while in the Senate he had fallen off the sobriety wagon.
“I slipped once in the U.S. Senate,” he said, “I admit it.”
But he also said that there’s nothing so stressful as a campaign and that he’s been campaigning for 20 months.
“I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for being honest,” Dayton said.
His personal issues prepare him to be a more effective leader because “I understand the human condition.”
Kupchella’s focused questions led to focused questions between the candidates.
Horner and Dayton got into a meaningful sparring match over their tax increase proposals.
Dayton, of course, supports a higher income tax rate on the wealthiest. His , he said, is the only “fair” tax.
“You don’t have the votes [in the Legislature] to pass your proposal,” said Horner, who says his expanded sales tax is the best approach to increasing revenue. “Name eight legislators who will support your proposal. I’ll spot you John Marty.”
The audience, Dayton and Emmer all laughed at that line.
But Dayton was adamant in saying that a sales tax, even one that somehow protects the poorest, will be unfair to the middle class. And he said that Emmer’s no-tax approach is the most regressive of all because more cuts in such programs as local government aid would mean higher property taxes. Those taxes hit hardest at the middle class, Dayton said.
Both Horner and Dayton blasted Emmer for his budget plan, which calls for cuts in higher education and health and human services. Education cuts, both said, are cuts at Minnesota’s best hope for being a leader down the line.
But when Horner starting talking about “investing” in Minnesota, Emmer shook his head.
“There you go again,” Emmer said to Horner. “We must invest, we must invest, we must invest. Investment is big government.”
The debate, hosted by Kupchella’s BringMeTheNews and sponsored by such organizations as the Citizens League, Dorsey & Whitney, Target and Politics in Minnesota, appeared to draw a crowd that leaned toward Horner and Dayton.
Murmurs of approval
Though the audience abided by the request to applaud only at the beginning and end of the debate, there were occasional murmurs of approval.
Dayton especially drew a murmur when he spoke of how for eight years, Minnesota has been governed by “anti-government proponents.”
“See, we made government worse,” Dayton said of the last eight years. “Re-elect us and we’ll make it worse again. I want to make it better.”
Yet, all of Emmer’s ideas weren’t rejected — even by his two opponents.
Emmer may be the strongest advocate of whacking away at the size of government. For example, he said again that he wants to cut the number of commissioners from 22 to “about six.”
But both Horner and Dayton are talking about cutting government, too.
Horner long has called for a “sunset” on all state mandates, bringing back only those that can be justified.
For his part, Dayton said that the second legislative session in each biennium “should be the ‘undoing’ session,” meaning that a portion of the time should be spent on cutting away duplicative mandates and overlapping government functions.
Who was the debate winner?
Kupchella. His questions — and a multimedia format that brought in video questions from a couple of guests as well as questions from the audience — forced the candidates to move, if ever so briefly, from their scripted talking points.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.