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Governor candidates Walz and Jensen face off in COVID-19-focused debate at Farmfest

During the hour-and-a-half long debate, Republican candidate Scott Jensen frequently veered from agriculture questions to talk about the state's response to the pandemic.

Farmfest gubernatorial debate
Gov. Tim Walz, left, and Republican candidate Scott Jensen, right, debated on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, at Farmfest in Redwood County, Minnesota.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
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REDWOOD COUNTY, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Republican challenger Scott Jensen on Wednesday, Aug. 3, faced off during a testy debate at Farmfest.

The hour-and a-half-long panel discussion frequently veered away from agriculture issues to a discussion about the state's management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was the first time that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor and his challenger have debated. And it set the stage for likely issues set to come up on the campaign trail.

Jensen used his answer periods to question how Walz decided on mitigation measures for the state and to make a pitch for less state regulation for farmers, businesses and child care providers.

"This whole concept of locking down Minnesota just because you think you can is absolutely an example of an abomination of government overreach," Jensen said to applause from the crowd.

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Jensen is a family physician and during the height of the pandemic, he came under review by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice for sharing information about COVID-19 treatments that had not been proven effective. And on Wednesday he shared a theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab.

Scott Jensen - Farmfest
Gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, speaks to reporters after a debate at Farmfest.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Walz, meanwhile, defended his administration's steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, saying they helped minimize deaths from the illness and prevented the state's health systems from becoming overwhelmed.

“Instead of spreading false information, be part of the solution," Walz said. "It's easy to guess after the fact, it's easy to say these are the things that would've happened. ... When we face challenges, the solution is not to divide more of us, it's to come together."

The governor sought to portray himself as a person open to compromise and work across party lines. And he criticized Jensen for telling GOP lawmakers to block a tax and supplemental budget package from passing earlier this year.

"We are creating an economy that works for everyone, we are addressing climate change and not walking around it, we're creating budgets that invest in police and had someone not said, 'Kill the bill,' there would be $300 million and three dozen more state troopers on duty today," Walz said.

The comments came after Jensen said the state should put additional funding toward public safety and claimed he would've called in the National Guard earlier following riots that broke out after the police killing of George Floyd.

"I know what I stand for and what I did not do is I did not flinch, I did not freeze, I did not stop making decisions," Jensen said. "Had I been the governor, I would have brought in the National Guard sooner."

Walz Farmfest
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, speaks with reporters after a gubernatorial debate at Farmfest.
Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

Reports reviewing the riots and city response found that Minneapolis leaders didn't call on the state soon enough to deploy National Guard resources as destruction transpired.

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Hundreds packed the Wick Building at the farm expo to listen to the debate and cheered on both candidates, with some booing when they disagreed. Supporters from each campaign wore T-shirts with the logo of their favorite candidate.

After the discussion, Lori and Val Eberspacher said they were impressed by Jensen's comments and said they planned to support him in November. The couple that lives in Marshall, Minnesota, and runs a livestock company said they also objected to the state's response to the pandemic.

"We're so close to South Dakota and we watched what that governor did to keep her state running while he shut us down," Lori Eberspacher said. "And we just don't agree with how he handled that."

Voters next week will cast their ballots in the primary election. Winners will advance to the general election. There are no additional candidate debates currently scheduled.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter  @bydanaferguson , call 651-290-0707 or email  dferguson@forumcomm.com.

Dana Ferguson is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. Ferguson has covered state government and political stories since she joined the news service in 2018, reporting on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the divided Statehouse and the 2020 election.
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