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Walz, Jensen trade barbs in third, final gubernatorial debate

In their only meeting to be broadcast across Minnesota, the candidates traded barbs in a contentious hour-long debate moderated by Mike Mulcahy on Minnesota Public Radio.

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DFL Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and GOP challenger Scott Jensen meet in their third and final debate at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul on Friday, Oct. 28. The debate broadcast statewide on Minnesota Public Radio.
Alex Derosier / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — With just 11 days until Election Day, DFL Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen met at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown St. Paul on Friday, Oct. 28, for their third and final debate in the gubernatorial election.

In their only meeting to be broadcast across the entire state, the candidates traded barbs in a contentious hour-long debate moderated by Mike Mulcahy on Minnesota Public Radio . Attacks between the candidates ranged across central issues in the campaign such as crime, abortion and education funding, and at times veered into personal territory.

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, left, and former Minnesota Sen. Scott Jensen
John Autey and Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press

Walz contrasted what he called Jensen’s “dark, pessimistic, negative view of the state” with what he called his own optimistic vision. The first-term Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor touted record low unemployment, a historic $9.3 billion budget surplus and said he would seek to spend more on education and other investments in the state’s future.

Jensen often went on the attack during his third meeting with Walz, again blaming the governor for Minnesota’s rise in crime, a trend seen across the U.S., as well as the governor’s record on COVID-19. Jensen railed against Walz’s spending plans, saying the state should do more to combat waste and fraud before putting more money into government programs.

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In his opening statement, Jensen, a Chaska family practice physician and one-term state senator who rose to prominence in 2021 for his COVID skepticism, said Walz’s decisions over the past four years had harmed Minnesota.

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“In his inaugural address he said he would unite people, he would unite Minnesota. His slogan was ‘one Minnesota.’ 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.”

Jensen was more aggressive than he was in last week’s televised debate with Walz, often interjecting with comments about his opponent’s demeanor. Jensen, also referenced his compliment on Walz’s smile from last week’s debate, joking that it was unfortunate the radio audience wouldn’t be able to see it. Many online found the "smile" moment from last week's debate awkward and insincere, sending the clip viral on social media platforms such as Twitter.

During one of Walz’s responses Friday, Jensen interjected that the governor should “take a breath” and later told the moderator he nearly fell asleep as his opponent explained how he would fund education. In addition to those jabs, he brought up Walz’s 1995 speeding arrest in Nebraska .

When Walz told Jensen he never talked to him about fully funding education because he “quit the Legislature,” Jensen shot back at Walz's decades-long military career, telling the governor “you quit the Guard.” Jensen, who has not served in the military, earlier this month attacked Walz for leaving the National Guard before his unit deployed to Iraq in 2005. Walz left the guard ahead of his run for Minnesota’s First Congressional District.

Walz did not offer the same sorts of comments on Jensen's demeanor, but did not hold back in calling Jensen out for his COVID skepticism. The virus has not been a central issue in the 2022 general election for governor, but during Friday’s debate, the candidates sparred for more than 10 minutes on one another’s record on COVID.

Walz said he is wary of engaging on COVID issues with Jensen as it runs the risk of spreading what he called dangerous disinformation about the virus. Jensen has expressed skepticism about masking, vaccine and lockdowns, and was an early critic of the way the state counted COVID deaths.

“This reckless dangerous behavior, pushing internet conspiracy theories made our job harder,” Walz said. “The entire medical establishment in Minnesota is with us on this.”

Walz admitted his administration didn’t handle the pandemic perfectly but was proud of Minnesota’s record, pointing to lower death rate per capita than many other states.

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Jensen said keeping kids out of school and isolating the elderly in nursing homes was a disaster, and challenged Walz to answer if he’d support a COVID vaccination mandate for students; Walz did not directly respond.

Other issues that came up again included abortion, and the $250 million Feeding our Future fraud scandal, which Jensen and other Republicans have been attempting to blame on DFL officials. Walz and other DFLers have repeatedly said they do not want to disclose more details so as not to compromise the FBI’s investigation, and have said the state was not in a position to fight the fraud as early as Republicans have said it could. Federal authorities allege the nonprofit Feeding Our Future stole a quarter-billion dollars in federal aid intended for meals for needy children during the pandemic.

Most of the other defendants have pleaded not guilty.

On abortion, Walz again reiterated his commitment to women's right to make personal medical decisions, and reminded the audience that in the spring, Jensen had said he would try to ban the procedure in Minnesota before changing his tune following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

“Scott either in May blatantly lied to his supporters to get the endorsement of the Republican Party by saying ‘of course we’re going to ban abortion’ or he’s flipped on it now,” Walz said. “This is the most anti-choice, anti-woman ticket that’s ever run.”

Jensen shot back, as he has in previous debates in statements, that the governor ultimately has little control over abortion policy in Minnesota as it is constitutionally protected under the 1995 state Supreme Court decision Doe v. Gomez. He added, however, that the Legislature could place the issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment for the broader public to decide.

Following the debate, Jensen told reporters the intensity was a reflection of the closeness of the gubernatorial race and compared the event to "two people throwing darts at each other." He said if there were more debates the candidates could have gotten deeper into the issues. Walz reiterated to reporters his "optimism vs. darkness" message in contrasting himself with Jensen, and said the tone of the debate did not serve Minnesotans well.

Where the race stands

Polling in the race for Minnesota governor had largely favored Walz for the past few months. In early September, a KSTP/SurveyUSA poll showed Walz leading by 18 points, but by mid-October, a MinnPost poll showed a 5% gap. A poll from the Trafalgar group this week showed Jensen with a 0.5% lead.

Walz has enjoyed a considerable fundraising lead for the entire election cycle, as well as millions in independent group spending. On Tuesday, however, the Republican Governors Association, a national group, filed paperwork for $750,000 in spending for a Jensen-aligned group. It’s a significant outside spending boost for Jensen.

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This week saw two major endorsements for the top gubernatorial candidates. Walz on Thursday gained the endorsement of former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. The GOP blasted Ventura as a "dangerous conspiracy theorist" for his past question of the official record on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Walz told reporters Friday he doesn't agree with everything Ventura says, but was still honored to have the ex-governor's endorsement.

Jensen received the endorsement of former President Donald Trump late Tuesday night, something he said he did not expect. The DFL was quick to condemn that endorsement, casting Jensen as a 2020 election denier.

Jensen suggested to reporters last Friday that he did not expect the former president to endorse his campaign.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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