(Updated at 3:17 p.m.)
In their first face-to-face exchange before the November election, Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and Republican challenger Stewart Mills went on the offensive.
In a debate at the Duluth Playhouse that highlighted their differences on economic policy, gun rights, health care and military involvement in the Middle East, each sought to portray his opponent as out of touch with Minnesotan values. They were joined on stage by Green Party candidate Skip Sandman.
But Nolan and Mills dominated the debate, quickly pivoting to their campaign themes.
Nolan said the choice for northeastern Minnesotans is clear. He pledged to fight for the middle class, and criticized Mills as a spoiled son of privilege who, if elected to Congress, would fight for millionaires. Mills is the grandson of a founder of Mills Fleet Farm.
"This election contest, I submit, is a question of, 'who are you for?' Our primary opponent here in this contest, Mr. Mills, has made it clear who he's for," Nolan said. "He has said he wants more tax cuts for super-millionaires and billionaires and yet at the same time he opposes an increase in the minimum wage. The choice could not be more clear."
Before you keep reading ...
MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.
Mills wasted no time in moving to an attack on Nolan's "F" rating from the National Rifle Association and on the incumbent's position that the Affordable Care Act is a good start toward single-payer, universal health care.
"I've seen first-hand how Obamacare has affected negatively our employees and their families," Mills said. "And not only that, I have seen all throughout our part of Minnesota how people have been negatively impacted by it: higher premiums, higher co-pays, higher deductibles, skinnier networks. They're paying more. They're getting less."
Although the debate was the first combative exchange between the two men, many 8th District voters likely already know how the candidates view each other, given the millions both sides have spent on negative campaign ads.
When asked about all of the attacks, Nolan said he's more of a moderate than a liberal. He also defended his support for the Second Amendment, saying that imposing some restrictions on weapons, such as mandatory background checks for all sales, does not strip people of their right to bear arms.
"I've been buying my guns and ammunition, my family and I have, from your dad and your granddaddy's store all of our life," Nolan said. "And the fact is, I support the Second Amendment for hunting for personal protection, for sport shooting. It's a fundamental basic right. But that doesn't mean we can't have some gun safety."
Just as Republicans are trying to frame Nolan as an extreme liberal, Democrats are trying to portray Mills as a silver-spoon millionaire who cares more about his long hair than he does about working Americans.
One ad shows the real Mills repeatedly grooming his hair and then cuts to a stand-in heading off in a yacht to drink champagne and eat lobster.
Mills said he's proud of his family's accomplishments and his lifelong record of hard work.
"If they want to attack me and my family for the jobs that we're created, then that's their message," Mills said. "Their message is picking on my hair."
When asked about the safe transport of oil, Mills converted the question into an attack, ripping Nolan for not voting to expedite regulatory approval for construction of the proposed Keystone Pipeline. Mills said the Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency have become "weaponized," and that Americans need to regain control of them.
"If these agencies aren't looking [at] how it can be done but trying to come up with every reason how it can be stopped," Mills said, "you know what? It's time to get the people to take control of their government."
Nolan said regulations are in place because they're needed and he noted that environmental problems in the United States led to many of today's rules.
"I grew up in a time when the lakes and rivers were so polluted they were catching on fire," Nolan said. "The Mississippi River where we lived, why you'd go down there in the spring and there were toilet paper and condoms and turds hanging on every branch, and that was the good stuff. That wasn't the toxic stuff."
The environmental discussion included Polymet's proposed copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range. After spending tens of millions of dollars on environmental review over nine years, the company is still without an answer as to whether it can proceed.
Mills, who said there's no reason regulators shouldn't be moving forward with the mine, accused Nolan of being on both sides of the issue.
"He can say he's for it right now, but where's he going to be tomorrow?" Mills asked. "And you know you can look. All this stuff is online."
Nolan insisted he's always supported PolyMet's proposal, but said he wants to ensure that the mine is properly operated so it won't put the environment at risk.
"My position has been consistent. It has been clear. And you can say that's being on both sides of the issue," Nolan said. "And I would say, yeah, you're darn right it is. I am for mining and I am for doing it the right way."
Opposing the PolyMet mine is at the heart of Sandman's Green Party campaign. Sandman, an elder of the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa, said extracting precious metal from the Iron Range would surely lead to environmental problems.
"It's not if, it's when. It's when it happens," Sandman said. "We are the ones that are going to suffer. Our children are the ones that are going to suffer. Your grandchildren."
On Medicare and Social Security, Mills said he would keep all options for shoring up the programs on the table. Nolan said that meant Mills might support previous Republican proposals to privatize the programs.
Mills said the nation needs to keep promises to seniors and that lawmakers need to find bipartisan paths to ensure Medicare and Social Security remain solvent.
But when it came to tax policy Mills again threw out the term "weaponized" to describe the tax code, which he said needs to be dramatically simplified.
"Our tax code is way too complicated," Mills said. "The IRS is way too powerful, and they have been weaponized against the American people. We need a flatter, fairer tax code."
Nolan suggested the biggest problem with the tax code is that the rich are not paying their fair share.
"If we want to rebuild this middle class we've got to get away from this trickle down theory — give more money to the super rich and the billionaires," Nolan said. "We need to rebuild it from the bottom up. That's why I disagree so vehemently with you and the need to provide more tax cuts to the super rich and your opposition to increasing the minimum wage."
The vast majority of the debate focused on domestic issues, but Nolan and Mills also had a chance to contrast positions on fighting in the Middle East. Nolan said the United States should not have escalated attacks on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Mills said the Obama administration should not have pulled out of Iraq but that he supports its current approach to dealing with ISIS.