The two candidates in Minnesota's special election for U.S. senator — DFL incumbent Tina Smith and her Republican challenger, state Sen. Karin Housley — laid out their cases to voters Sunday night in the campaign's final debate.
The MPR News debate, moderated by Cathy Wurzer, took place in front of a large crowd at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul — with what seemed like many die-hard supporters on both sides cheering and chanting before the debate began.
Wurzer began the debate by pointing out that Minnesota has never had two women running against each other for the U.S. Senate — until this campaign.
She asked Smith and Housley about the wage gap; women on average make 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts.
Housley said she doesn't believe in mandates on businesses to provide equal pay. She said she felt the Women's Economic Security Act, which was passed in Minnesota under the Dayton administration and increased enforcement of equal pay laws, actually hurt women.
"Whenever you put women in their own category and not make them strong and tell them that, 'We have to make laws because you aren't equal to men' — that's the problem," Housley said.
Smith countered with a defense of the law.
"The idea that half of the population in this state or this country are not able to have the same opportunities and earn the same wages as men, it brings us all down," Smith said. "So to me this isn't a question of giving women special dispensation as Karin is suggesting, I think it's a question of raising everybody up. So I supported the Women's Economic Security Act when I was lieutenant governor. I think it was a good step forward in making sure that women would have opportunities."
The conversation shifted to rising health care costs — something both candidates agree is the most important issue to Minnesotans they've met on the campaign trail.
Housley, who's been campaigning against the federal Affordable Care Act, said the only way to get costs under control is to increase competition among health plans.
"We have to make sure our health care providers are transparent," she said. "If you want to get a hip surgery or a knee surgery, you should be able to shop around and they should see what it costs at each place. And then when it comes to the insurance side of it, we need to be able to buy our health insurance like we buy our car insurance, across state lines, because competition is the only thing that will drive costs down. Not a single-payer, government-run socialized medicine."
Smith said Congress should allow the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients. She noted her early efforts in Washington to fight the increasing cost of prescription drugs.
The candidates disagreed on whether to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Smith said she supports raising it to $15 an hour.
"In Minnesota we raised the minimum wage, (and) I'm proud of the work that we did," she said. "The minimum wage in Minnesota is now $9.65 an hour. Again, this lifts up everybody and it allows opportunity for everybody."
Housley said she's not in favor of a government mandate to raise the federal minimum wage because it negatively impacts small businesses.
"Let businesses decide and competition decide what the minimum wage should be," she said. "And it should be different for every single business. If McDonald's needs workers and they're not getting them — and I've seen it and it's happened, and it's happening right now because every industry needs more workers — they can increase the minimum wage on their own."
On immigration, both candidates agreed the current system is broken and needs significant reform.
Smith called immigration an economic issue because of the need for immigrant workers in the state and across the nation, while Housley claimed multiple times that her opponent supports "open borders" — which Smith repeatedly said isn't true.
The debate ended with a question about the lack of civility in the current political climate.
"There needs to be less divisiveness, less extremism and just more getting along," Housley said.
"Try to find common ground even with people that you disagree with, and if we did more of that I think we would be a little bit more in touch with our shared humanity rather than our differences and that's what all leaders need to do," Smith said. "Words matter."
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Smith — then the lieutenant governor — to the Senate seat after Al Franken resigned earlier this year. Housley is a small business owner who was elected to the state Senate in 2012. The winner of Tuesday's election will serve the last two years of Franken's term.