The top two contenders for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement squared off in a debate Thursday night in Plymouth.
Republican Representatives Marty Seifert and Tom Emmer highlighted their vision for the state and aired out their differences before a group of Republican activists.
For the past month, Tom Emmer has said his campaign has the momentum leading into next month's state party convention. On Thursday night, Marty Seifert tried to claim it back.
Before the GOP Senate District 45 debate even started, Seifert released a six page plan to erase the state's $1 billion budget deficit without raising taxes or using federal stimulus money.
Throughout the nearly two hour forum, Seifert repeatedly mentioned his budget plan and its cuts to government, commissions and task forces.
"Just take a look at my budget proposal. We are sunsetting. We are combining. We are abolishing. I know that's controversial but ladies and gentlemen, the deficit is an opportunity. Let's take advantage of that opportunity," Seifert said.
Seifert and Emmer don't differ dramatically on the budget. Both say they want to cut government spending and cut taxes to attract more business investment to the state. In fact, the two argued over who would cut government more. Emmer said Seifert's plan just nibbles around the edges.
"If you take a look at where we differ right away. You go and you merge Human Rights into the Department of Human Services. The Department of Human Rights needs to go away. I'm not combining it with anything. You talk about redesigning a smaller Met Council. The Met Council needs to go away. We need to be more bold," Emmer said.
Seifert shot back that, unlike Emmer, he has a plan. Throughout the night, Seifert criticized Emmer for his past votes as a lawmaker and legislation he sponsored.
Every time Seifert raised an issue, a member of his campaign staff handed out background to reporters outlining Emmer's positions. For example, Seifert said Emmer opposed bills that would have protected health care providers from malpractice lawsuits.
"There was an Ob-Gyn protection bill that was in the Legislature. I voted yes. Tom voted no. So there are some differences when it comes to tort reform."
Emmer defended his voting record.
"When you talk about these piecemeal approaches. You want to give these ambulance drivers a nonliability path. That's great but water will find the path of least resistance and all of a sudden it will be the dispatchers. With the Ob-Gyn's, it will be the nurses and the hospitals. Folks, you have to have comprehensive tort reform and if you look at my record, I have been defending people and their businesses for over 20 years against frivolous lawsuits," Emmer said.
Seifert also criticized Emmer for voting to remove a referendum on a Hennepin County sales tax increase for the new Twins ballpark and for a campaign finance bill that capped contributions to political parties and political action committees.
Emmer said he opposes public funds for sports stadiums and said his attempt to restrict campaign contributions was aimed at preventing Democrats from buying seats in the Legislature.
The stakes are high for both candidates. Both Emmer and Seifert say they'll drop out of the race if they lose the Republican endorsement, and the next month and a half is critical for them to highlight their conservative credentials and their electability. Emmer was quick to pounce on Seifert for repeatedly saying he would veto legislation.
"I want to lead so we don't have to veto things. Absolutely you have to veto if you have no choice, but we have to lead agendas," Emmer said.
Both candidates were also asked if they regretted any votes during their time as legislators. Emmer didn't specify any votes. Seifert cited his vote for a requirement that energy companies in Minnesota produce 25 percent of their energy from renewable fuels by 2025. Emmer's campaign has criticized that vote and Seifert this week was unsuccessful in an attempt to loosen the standard in the Legislature.
"An error isn't an mistake until you refuse to correct it. I had a repeal of the standards up in committee. It got voted down on a party line vote but you run into the gun fire even if you lose," Seifert said.
Both Seifert and Emmer will be working to hold their support among GOP activists. Both campaigns say the fight for the party endorsement is tight -- meaning debates like this one and constant courting of delegates will continue up to the April 30th endorsing convention.