Opening showdown gets pointed between Walz, Jensen

Scott Jensen listens to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz answer a question
Republican Dr. Scott Jensen listens to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz answer a question at their first head-to-head debate at FarmFest on Wednesday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Billed as an opening conversation with the leading candidates for Minnesota governor, a forum Wednesday produced sharp exchanges throughout — about COVID-19, farm policy and the general role of government.

The first head-to-head showdown between DFL Gov. Tim Walz and presumptive Republican nominee Scott Jensen was held at Farmfest, an agriculture expo near Redwood Falls. 

From the get-go it was clear Republican Scott Jensen’s game plan was to swing hard at the DFL incumbent, beginning with an appraisal of the theme Walz ran on last time.

“His program of ‘One Minnesota’ has become far less a reality and more almost an antonym of what we've seen,” Jensen said, pivoting quickly from his own “Heal Minnesota” mantra.

Walz rejected the premise.

“Compromise is a virtue and not a vice,” Walz said. “Finding workable solutions to move the state forward is what ‘One Minnesota’ means. It doesn't mean we all agree. It means we work across differences to live the lives that are best for our family. If that's urban, so be it. If it's suburban, so be it. If it's rural, so be it.”

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And so it went for more than an hour. 

The lively audience filled with people in campaign garb cheered or jeered at the remarks. Jensen played to the room’s energy by rising to his feet each time he spoke to describe the last four years as a letdown.

Walz sometimes let the challenger's critiques go by but at other times dismissed his opponent as a Monday morning quarterback. He was also standing by the end.

“This job entails more than admiring a problem, second guessing,” Walz said at the litany of criticism Jensen sent his way.

Attendants are listening gubernatorial debate
A packed house filled the Wick Buildings FarmFest Center during the first head-to-head gubernatorial debate between Gov. Tim Walz and Scott Jensen on Wednesday. The audience spilled out beyond the building, with people watching from any open area.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The audience was stacked with supporters of each candidate, making it hard to tell if any votes were swayed. Jensen grew up in Sleepy Eye – about 15 miles down the road from where the trade show is held each year. Walz represented the region in Congress for a dozen years after a teaching career in Mankato.

The forum was livestreamed, meaning it was sure to be heard by voters elsewhere. Both campaigns quickly seized on points they’ll revisit later in the campaign or feature in television ads this fall.

The most-pointed exchanges revolved around COVID-19 – the steps Walz took to confront it and the alternative medical theories offered up by Jensen, a family doctor who rose to prominence on his virus skepticism.

Jensen said business lockdowns went too far, nursing homes became too deadly, students suffered from distance learning and the vaccine push became too punitive.

“One size doesn't fit all. We had cases in Hennepin County and one in some counties in Minnesota, and yet it was one size fits all. We're locking you down,” Jensen said. “That was the kind of policy that's why so many Minnesotans felt that they were subjects under an emperor and it made us feel bad.”

Walz accused Jensen of holding fringe views and spreading misinformation.

“You can have wishful thinking and you can hope that you know COVID wasn't real and you can take ivermectin or whatever, but that is not where the facts are. And as governor, you have to deal with that.”

Gov. Tim Walz gives his closing remarks
Gov. Tim Walz gives his closing remarks during the first head-to-head gubernatorial debate with Dr. Scott Jensen at FarmFest on Wednesday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Although the candidates regularly sidestepped moderator questions to deliver the points they wanted, they did get deep into the agricultural and rural viability topics important to the FarmFest crowd.

Jensen said stifling regulations are holding Greater Minnesota back.

“Let farmers farm. Let miners mine. Let teachers teach,” he said, rising to a crescendo. “And let government get the hell out of the way.”

Walz touted rising exports, promotion of new ag products and the fight to head off animal disease that pose threat to major livestock industries. He cited last spring’s avian flu outbreak as an example of one that was less lethal and disruptive as a prior bout thanks to steps taken by his administration.

“It's about working together. It's about executing. And trust me on this, you need government when something this big happens and the collaboration and coordination that our agencies did saved birds’ lives — saved the livelihoods and put Minnesota back on the map as the number one turkey producer.”

Jensen used that answer to draw distinctions between the Walz governing philosophy and his own. 

“Tim Walz: 'You need government,'” Jensen said. “Ronald Reagan said, ‘Always fear if someone comes to your door and says I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’ That's the contrast you're looking at today.”

Candidate Dr. Scott Jensen answers questions
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen answers questions from the media after a debate with Gov. Tim Walz at Farm Fest on Wednesday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Walz questioned the limits of the Jensen hands-off approach.

“We are all in this together,” the governor said. “The idea that we wouldn't need to monitor water or that we wouldn't need to make sure a child wasn't shaken at a daycare. Those are things that are just basic safety things that we do together. That's good policy.”

After they left the stage, the two made the rounds at the farm expo. They shook hands with farmers, posed for selfies or just stood and listened as critics gave them an earful. 

The time and place for their next debate isn’t yet set.

Walz said he’s willing to do more but the details haven’t been nailed down. Jensen invited his rival to meet for biweekly debates, which is unlikely.

“I think Minnesotans really want to have a robust, transparent conversation,” Jensen said.