U.S. Senate debate: Candidates disagree on COVID-19, other issues

A photo collage of Jason Lewis and Tina Smith
Democratic Sen. Tina Smith and Republican-endorsed challenger Jason Lewis.
Photos by Jim Mone and Carolyn Kaster, AP | Illustration by MPR News

With just over a month to go until the election and on the day President Donald Trump tweeted that he had tested positive for COVID-19, the two top candidates for Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seat disagreed on how to best respond to the pandemic.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and her Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis met virtually for a debate on MPR News.

Democrats and Republicans need to work together on comprehensive legislation to help individuals, small businesses and others, Smith said.

“We need to get help to our schools and to state and local governments,” she said. “We need a national testing strategy.”

Lewis accused Smith and other Democrats of opposing Republican assistance plans because Republicans would not agree to add on COVID-19 items.

“Facts are stubborn things, Senator,” he said. “You voted against three COVID packages that would have aid go directly to Minnesotans not to state government, not to other governmental organizations but right to Minnesotans.” 

Smith defended her votes, saying she rejected inadequate legislation until the two sides worked together to strengthen an aid package.

Highlighting civil unrest in response to police killings and pushing a law and order message has been a central theme of Lewis’ campaign against Smith, and he criticized her again on the issue during the debate for supporting legislation that would change the way police can be personally held accountable for misconduct.

“There is a real problem when your government doesn’t back law enforcement,” Lewis said. “I do, and once you don’t back law enforcement then the word gets out pretty quick to people who want to do damage to life, liberty and property.”

Smith rejected a contention by Lewis that she supports defunding the police and said she supports a federal use of force standard and a national registry of police misconduct.

“I support common sense reforms that are going to bring more accountability and more transparency and more justice to policing,” she said.

On climate change, Smith said Minnesota could be a leader in green energy innovation. Lewis said Smith’s focus on protecting the environment amounts to a job-killing war on fossil fuels.

When the issue of confirming President Trump's Supreme Court nominee came up, Smith refused to say whether she would support expanding the number of justices on the high court. Some Democrats have argued their party should move to pack the court by adding more liberal justices next year if Democrats win control of the Senate and White House.

“I am just not going to go there,” Smith said. “I have no idea what the world is going to look like. I think what we should be focused on right now is what is at stake with this Supreme Court nomination.”

Smith cited the future of abortion rights and Affordable Care Act benefits such as the ban on charging people more for health insurance if they have preexisting health conditions. 

“You don’t get to be a senator from Minnesota without telling people what you’re going to do,” Lewis responded. “Tina Smith is pulling a Joe [Biden] here, ‘Well, I’m not going to go there.’ That’s not an answer.”

The two candidates rounded off their discussion with disagreement over immigration policy.  Local governments are overburdened with refugees who are not fleeing persecution, Lewis said.

“We can’t go around abolishing ICE, getting rid of the border patrol and having open borders which you have been advocating,” he said. “America cannot sustain that.”

“I have never said I was for open borders. That is ridiculous,” Smith responded. “To suggest that immigrants in Minnesota or around this country are a burden to be borne, rather than contributors, taxpayers, entrepreneurs is all wrong for Minnesota."

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