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Jensen hammers Walz over debates, but governor candidates don't always spar at state fair

How often Minnesota gubernatorial candidates meet on the debate stage depends quite a bit on the type of election year.

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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ST. PAUL — With just over two months until Election Day Nov. 8, the shots between Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz and Republican nominee Scott Jensen have increased, with Jensen and the state GOP criticizing Walz for not agreeing to a debate at the Minnesota State Fair and other events where candidates traditionally square off.

So far, Walz and Jensen have met for one debate: at Minnesota Farmfest on Aug. 3, where the candidates clashed over Walz’s lockdown orders during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, something Jensen strongly opposed.

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.

Jensen's campaign repeatedly claimed Walz backed out of debates, though the candidate admitted to Minnesota News Network last week that his opponent had never actually agreed to meet.

Still, typical debate stops — including "Almanac" on Twin Cities Public Television, the Game Fair outdoors convention, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the state fair — won't be happening this year. Both campaigns say they're still figuring out future dates.

The state fair debate often serves as one of the first major events of the governor’s race, said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz, who explained that Minnesota often has more debates in its gubernatorial elections than many other states.

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“Minnesota, maybe compared to some other states generally does a lot of candidate face time with one another for debates,” Schultz said, recalling the 2010 race for governor where three candidates met more than a dozen times.

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But how often Minnesota gubernatorial candidates meet on the debate stage depends quite a bit on the type of election year.

Walz in 2018 faced Republican Jeff Johnson in a debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio at the state fair. But now that Walz is running for his second term as governor, he’s not bucking tradition by declining to take part in the debate in 2022. In fact, no incumbent candidate for governor has taken to the debate stage at the “Great Minnesota Get Together” in over 20 years.

Mark Dayton, former U.S. senator and governor, took to the state fair debate stage in 2010 to face Republican Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner in the contest to replace Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But when Dayton, a Democrat, ran for reelection in 2014, he declined an invitation from Minnesota Public Radio to debate Republican candidate Johnson.

In 2002, Pawlenty appeared in a debate at the state fair with DFL nominee Mike Hatch and Independence Party Candidate Tim Penny. But during his 2006 reelection bid against then-Attorney General Mike Hatch, Pawlenty skipped the debate.

Beyond it being the norm for incumbents to skip some debates, Walz may be playing his incumbent advantage rather than opening himself up to any risks posed by a public debate with his challenger, Schultz said.

“It's a smart move on one level politically,” he said. “He's got way more money than Jensen. He's the incumbent. Why should he debate the challenger if he can just ignore him? And if he could do solo appearances himself, he gets to define the agenda, define the issues, and not have to be in a debate.”

Schulz compared Walz’s approach to a gubernatorial form of a “Rose Garden strategy,” a style of campaigning where an incumbent president uses the power of his office for publicity. Walz does not have to talk about what he would do as governor, because he is already in office, and the decisions he makes can also serve as campaign messaging.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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