Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democrat Dean Phillips went head-to-head Friday on the rising cost of health care, the 2017 tax bill and veracity of television ads inundating voters.
The candidates for congress in Minnesota's 3rd District debated live on MPR News, a rare joint appearance in a campaign that's been mostly defined by the millions spent on television ads.
The suburban Minneapolis district is a battleground in the race to control the U.S. House, and Democrats think they have a shot to topple the five-term congressman in an area that supported Hillary Clinton two years ago.
Here's what the candidates said Friday and where they stand on the issues:
Millions of dollars have already been spent on television ads in the race, and the two candidates devoted plenty of time debating them -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
Paulsen said his favorite ad so far is his first TV spot that showed him paddling in a canoe and talking about protecting what he called the "Yellowstone of Minnesota" -- the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Phillips highlighted his recent Bigfoot ad, which featured a paid actor dressed up as Bigfoot and trying to find Paulsen in the lobby of a pharmaceutical company.
But most of the ads have been negative. Phillips criticized a Paulsen ad saying he doesn't provide healthcare to employees at his business Penny's Coffee (several fact checks have noted he provided healthcare to full time employees, but not part time employees). "We have always provided health care and you know that to be the truth," he said.
But Paulsen said it's an area where Phillips is a "hypocrite." "He said healthcare is a moral right but didn't provide it to his own employees," he said.
The cost of health care has been a top issue the cycle, and the candidates showed a fundamental difference in how they would tackle that problem.
Phillips wants to lower the cost of care through a Medicare buy-in option, and he'd like to start negotiating prescription drug prices through Medicare: "to be able to purchase Medicare at any age at any phase of your life and strengthen Medicare so that it can have more negotiating power," Phillips said.
Paulsen said the best way to cut costs is through coordinated care and chronic care management, which he said is consuming the vast majority of Medicare costs.
He criticized the buy-in option as "political cover" for a single-payer healthcare system and prefers competition for coverage across state lines. "I would rather have the private market assist folks who aren't of Medicare age," he said.
One of Phillips' main critiques of Paulsen throughout the campaign has been that he isn't accessible and doesn't hold public meetings.
"It's a core responsibility of every member of Congress to appear in public," Phillips said. "We live in challenging times and conversation is sometimes challenging, despite that I will absolutely hold public, town hall meetings regularly so people can challenge me," he said.
Paulsen pushed back, saying he's hosted more than 20 telephone tall hall meetings, and visited more than 150 businesses and 200 schools. He said he also meets with constituents privately.
"You'd be hard pressed to find any individual who said they weren't able to meet with me if they wanted to meet with me privately," he said. "I'm not going to go to campaign rallies and events with one side to suit your needs."
Voting with Trump
Two years ago, the 3rd District voted in favor of Hillary Clinton for president but also elected Paulsen. It's a contradiction that's defined the campaign, with Paulsen working to distance himself from Trump while Phillips attempts to tie them together.
"When you vote 98 percent of the time with Trump — and about an equal amount with your own party in a district that is so purple — it is an odd contention to me," Phillips said.
Paulsen pushed back, calling it a good "bumper sticker" slogan but not much else.
"The fact is, if you look at what President Trump has signed into law, 70 percent has been bipartisan," Paulsen said.
Taxes and the economy
Paulsen has spent the campaign highlighting the state of the economy: It's "booming," he said, in large part due to the tax cut package that the president and Congress passed last year. "The results are much stronger than any of us expected in just 10 months," he said.
Phillips said there were things he liked and didn't like in the tax bill, but he criticized it for eliminating the standard deduction and said "80 percent or more of the benefits are accrued to the top 1 percent in this country and corporations."
But Phillips would not say whether he would have voted in favor of the tax bill as a member of Congress.
"I would have worked hard to ensure this economic expansion benefits those who need it the most," he said.
On Trump's tax returns
The New York Times investigation into the Trump family's suspect tax practices reignited the debate over whether presidential candidates should be forced to release their tax returns.
Both candidates said the president should release his returns, but they differed on how that could be accomplished.
But Paulsen said it's not the place of Congress to force the president to release his tax returns, but law enforcement does have the ability to go to the IRS to subpoena tax records. Phillips said he would support a bill to require all future presidents to release their returns.
The candidates also differ on how the nation can tighten the nation's gun laws to prevent future school shootings.
Paulsen said he supports "gun violence restraining orders" on the federal level, which allow friends or family members to ask law enforcement to step in if they believe someone is a danger to themselves or others. He also supports gun violence research by the CDC and he wants more data on domestic abuse put into the background check system.
"Your background check system is only as good as the data you have in it," he said.
Phillips would go much further, he said, supporting universal background checks, an assault weapon ban, and increasing funding for mental health counselors and anti-bullying programs. He also criticized Paulsen for taking funding from the National Rifle Association in the past.
"Congress has done almost nothing...to make our neighborhood, or schools, or streets and our country safer," he said.
Sparks also flew in an exchange over climate change and what to do about it. Both candidates agree climate change is real and needs to be addressed, but Paulsen took a dig at Phillips for previously investing in coal and pipelines.
Phillips said he divested from once he learned they were part of his mutual fund package.
On actual policy proposals, Paulsen said Congress needs to spend more money on climate change, while Phillips said he would support a carbon fee dividend program to create incentives for people to reduce emissions.