In final debate, Walz and Jensen go after each other on fraud, COVID, taxes, and view of Minnesota today

It was their final and by far feistiest debate.

On Friday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen lit into each other on a range of issues, philosophies and personal styles as each seeks to gain momentum into the last 11 days before Election Day.

The race has garnered increased national attention and fundraising in the last few weeks as polls have shown the race tightening. Former President Donald Trump surprised Jensen by endorsing him earlier this week, and Walz sought — and got — a rare endorsement from Former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent who, like Trump, has spread false conspiracy theories.

The debate, hosted by Minnesota Public Radio inside the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul with no live audience, was at times chaotic and personal, and at times substantive. Topics ranged from state income tax policy to the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.

Is the present bright or dark?

Walz, seemingly aware that he may not be the hands-down favorite many political observers once thought he was, charged into the debate with an attempt to draw a deep philosophical distinction with Jensen.

“Scott’s vision is a dark and fearful vision of Minnesota,” Walz said in his opening remarks, before accusing Jensen of wanting to “criminalize” women seeking abortions, supporting tax cuts to benefit the wealthy while cutting funding for schools, and enabling “election denialism.” “That’s not the vision I have, and it’s not the vision Minnesotans have.”

It was a theme Walz would harken back to throughout the debate as Jensen sought to lay blame for numerous items of bad news — including falling test scores in schools, the Feeding Our Future COVID funding scandal, and spikes in violent crime — at Walz’ feet.

As Walz continued, the former high school football coach appeared to try to channel the rallyer-in-chief role he sought to play in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic: “We’ve been through some challenging times together. We’ve come out stronger than ever. We offer up solutions to the toughest problems.”

The opening remarks of Jensen, a former state senator and Chaska family physician, were a direct contrast.

“I became a family doctor because I wanted to help people,” he said. “I’m running for governor because Tim Walz hurt people. In his inaugural address, he said he’d unite people … That’s a sham. Tim Walz failed. Minnesota is broken. We’re fractured. We’re more deeply divided than I can remember in my lifetime. A few minutes ago, you heard Gov. Walz say ‘We’re stronger than ever.’ Really?”

Policy differences

With moderator Mike Mulcahy several times inserting himself to maintain acoustic order, Walz and Jensen sparred substantively over a few policy differences.

Jensen has suggested eliminating the state income tax, which makes up a major portion of state government income. His statements have varied as to how fast to do it, and how state services would change as a result. On Friday, he said he was merely trying to “start a conversation” on the topic. “You can’t have a plan until you do the brainstorming first. I have never indicated any specifics in this regard, of the personal income tax.” Jensen has floated specifics, but has later dismissed them as “brainstorming.”

Walz pressed Jensen for specifics, suggesting that officers of the State Patrol or Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would have to be cut.

Jensen criticized Walz as a typical tax-and-spend liberal, saying, “I don’t know that I’ve seen Tim Walz see a tax he didn’t want to increase.” He noted that when Walz came into office with a plan to increase the gas tax. However, Walz quickly abandoned that plan, and on Friday, he noted that there hasn’t been a state tax increase in his four years in office, and he signed into law several tax cuts.

The pair also differ in their view on schools. Walz pushed for a $960 million increase to the state’s portion of education funding, while Jensen has been skeptical of any increase in school funding and has suggested he would cut it. Jensen supports allowing parents to use a portion of public education dollars to pay private school tuition. On Friday, however, the two men never quite got into an actual debate over their education policy differences, as that discussion devolved into bickering.

COVID plays prominently

Perhaps surprisingly, COVID-19 played a prominent role in the action Friday.

Walz several times sought to portray Jensen as a purveyor of misinformation, even suggesting after the debate that some of what he said on air would be banned by social media channels.

Jensen, who rose to prominence by sowing doubt about the dangers of the virus, the usefulness of mask wearing and the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines — positions that have earned him warnings from social media companies at times — didn’t shy away.

“I’ve definitely been a skeptic,” he said, touting that he has been investigated five times by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, which has investigated him after it received complaints, but has never meted out any discipline. Jensen remains unvaccinated.

Walz touted his endorsement of the Minnesota Medical Association’s political arm, which had previously endorsed Jensen when he ran for the state Senate — to which Jensen responded that the group is “a liberal organization.”

Jensen restated his some of his debunked grievances with COVID, including that the death count has been inflated, and he criticized Walz for closing businesses and schools and supporting mask mandates for as long as he did, as well as a policy that allowed hospitals to discharge recovering nursing home residents back to their facilities.

He pushed for Walz to declare he would oppose any state effort to mandate the coronavirus vaccine for schoolchildren. Walz said no such mandate is currently being considered, but he refused to rule one out in the future.

At one point when discussing the high rate of death for early COVID patients on ventilators, Mulcahy asked Jensen, “Isn’t that because of COVID?”

“No,” Jensen responded. “The ventilator was the problem.”

“I don’t want to platform Scott any more on this,” Walz said moments later.

Election Day is Nov. 8.

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