Candidates in swing House district spar over Trump, taxes
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen and Democratic challenger Dean Phillips couldn’t resist arguing about their campaigns’ advertising barrage during a Friday debate, one of few face-to-face meetings in the competitive and costly race for Minnesota’s suburban congressional seat.
Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District is a battleground in the midterms as Democrats seek to capitalize on President Donald Trump’s sinking popularity in the suburbs in order to recapture the House majority. Friday’s debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio News was the second meeting between Paulsen, a fifth-term Republican, and Phillips, a businessman and first-time candidate.
With more than $6.6 million in advertisements from outside political groups and millions more in attack ads from the candidates themselves, their race is among the most expensive congressional elections in the country.
Minnesota voters can’t escape the political ads this fall. Neither can Paulsen or Phillips.
The two candidates spent nearly half of the 50-minute debate quibbling with each other’s ads and backing up their own. One of Paulsen’s ads targeted Phillips’ business, Penny’s coffee shops in Minneapolis.
“Phillips claims health care is a moral right, but he didn’t provide it to workers at his coffee shop,” a narrator says in the 30-second spot.
Phillips did say that health care is a right but called the rest of the ad false and misleading, saying he has always paid for full-time workers’ health coverage.
“That is false and you know it. I’ve provided health care to every single full-time employee at every company I’ve ever managed,” said Phillips, who previously worked for his family’s liquor company.
Phillips’ campaign said in a statement on Sept. 5 that Penny’s didn’t offer health coverage when it first started in 2016 — Phillips said the only full-time employees at the time were its founders. But the campaign said Penny’s paid its part-time employees a $15 minimum wage to help them afford health insurance through the individual market. Once the business grew, a handful of employees were converted to full-time and Penny’s began offering health insurance.
The Democratic candidate touted his own ad, a nearly 90-second spot featuring Bigfoot searching for Paulsen. Phillips said it’s meant to inject some humor in the campaign while highlighting Paulsen’s inaccessibility to constituents — the Republican congressman hosted his first public town hall in nearly six years this spring.
Paulsen objected to the ad as a baseless attack, saying he has held 23 town halls by telephone and meets with voters privately in part because public meetings often become “uncivil.”
“People don’t want to come and be yelled at or screamed at,” he said.
The President and his sinking popularity in suburban areas looms large in the congressional race, and Paulsen again sought to distance himself while Phillips aims to tie the pair closer.
Paulsen again pointed to ads, this time a campaign kickoff spot in which he touts saying “no way” to the Trump administration’s effort to peel back environmental regulations on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Pressed about the president’s tax returns, Paulsen said Trump should release them but wouldn’t answer whether Congress should pass a law requiring him to do so. And he called himself one of just a few dozen GOP lawmakers who had one of their bills signed by former President Barack Obama — legislation allowing the Internal Revenue Service to disclose tax returns in investigations involving missing children.
“It doesn’t matter who the president is. When it’s a good idea I will vote to work forward,” said Paulsen, who skipped Trump’s visit to Rochester on Thursday.
White House officials believe Paulsen’s lack of support for Trump will sink his candidacy, saying in a memo obtained by The Associated Press this week that vulnerable House Republicans should back the president to energize loyal Republicans.
But Phillips argued Paulsen has still been too loyal to the president for the swing district he represents, citing an analysis of congressional voting records from political analysis group FiveThirtyEight.
“To say that you stand up to your own party when you vote 98 percent of the time with Donald Trump ... is a very odd contention to me,” Phillips said.
The FiveThiryEight analysis show that more than 80 Republicans have voted 97 percent of the time or more with Trump, and Paulsen is among them at 97.8 percent.
Paulsen criticized Phillips for failing to answer how he would have voted on the massive tax cut passage passed in 2017, repeatedly pressing his Democratic opponent for an answer.
As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Paulsen helped write the bill and defended it, saying it helped spark the country’s current economic run, with gains in the stock market and nationwide unemployment at its lowest level in decades.
But Phillips said that bill was tilted too far toward helping the wealthy and corporations and didn’t do enough to help middle-income residents. He pointed to a provision that caps the amount of deductions residents can take on property and local income taxes, hitting high-tax states like Minnesota the hardest.
“I was not there for that bill, and I think it would have looked different had I had that opportunity,” Phillips said.
After the debate, Phillips told reporters that he would have voted against the 2017 legislation, saying “it accrued so little benefit to the middle class.”