By Heather J. Carlson, PostBulletin - ALBERT LEA — President Trump loomed large in the first face-off between Republicans vying for the 1st Congressional District seat.
Jim Hagedorn and state Sen. Carla Nelson repeatedly pledged during their first debate Monday night to stand by the president. On display in the room was a life-size, cardboard cutout of Trump giving two thumbs up.
"I am running for Congress because just like you I am disgusted at the dysfunction that we're seeing in Washington, D.C. It is past time for Congress to stand with our president … and start putting America first," Nelson said.
Hagedorn also emphasized his support for Trump.
"I want to be a conservative reinforcement in the U.S. House of Representatives led by Republicans to partner with our president to make the big changes necessary to keep moving our nation in this right direction," Hagedorn told the crowd of more than 100 conservatives at Wedgewood Cove Golf Club.
The open 1st Congressional District seat is viewed as a prime pickup opportunity for the GOP. Trump won the district by 15 percentage points and Hagedorn narrowly lost the race to DFL Congressman Tim Walz. The Mankato Democrat announced earlier this year he will run for governor instead of seeking re-election. In addition to the two GOP candidates, seven Democrats are vying for the seat. They include U.S. Army veteran Dan Feehan, former state Sen. Vicki Jensen, Mankato attorney Joe Sullivan and Rochester attorney Rich Wright.
On health care, both agree that Obamacare has been a disaster for the nation's health care system and voiced frustration that congressional Republicans had failed in attempts to repeal it. Hagedorn warned that Democrats' push for single-payer health care could have disastrous consequences.
"Medicare for all, single payer would be a devastating blow to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic and all our fine hospitals across the district," the Blue Earth Republican said.
Nelson said it is an "absolute disgrace" that Congress has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
"If elected, I will stand with President Trump to repeal Obamacare. Quite frankly, it is time we finally put the nail in the coffin of the misnamed Affordable Care Act," the Rochester senator said.
They both support the president's push to overhaul the nation's tax system. Hagedorn said he ultimately would like to see a flat tax with few deductions but he supports the plans advancing in Congress "because it's a step in the right direction and something that's long overdue."
Nelson praised Trump for pushing "pro-growth tax reform." She added, "We need to lower middle class tax rates, we need to simplify our tax code and we need provide tax relief for small businesses."
Both agree on the need to better secure America's borders and ramp up efforts to combat terrorism.
"The greatest threat to our homeland security is radical Islamic terrorist," Nelson said.
Hagedorn told the audience he has led on the issue of warning about radical Islamic terrorism. He supports a refugee timeout and merit-based immigration.
"Minnesota has an assimilation and terrorist problem because of refugees that come from countries that hate America," he said.
The biggest disagreements of the night centered on which one of them would have a better shot of winning the district. They also sparred over loyalness to Trump.
Nelson emphasized that she is an experienced lawmaker with a track-record of getting things done. She noted that Hagedorn failed to win last year despite Trump's resounding victory in southern Minnesota. Meanwhile, she defeated her DFL rival in a competitive seat by 12 percentage points.
"It is critical, it is our responsibility that we put our strongest candidate on the ballot. Our strongest candidate who can win, who can deliver for Minnesota and turn this seat red," Nelson said.
Hagedorn responded that he is proud of the campaign he ran and noted he was outspent four-to-one by Walz. He said he is in a better position this time having raised more than $400,000 and increased his name ID in the district. He also questioned Nelson's expressions of support for Trump saying, "I think you've overcompensated just a little bit tonight." He noted that when asked before the 2016 election she would not say whether she would vote for him.
"It would have been helpful if you would have supported him before the election, too," Hagedorn said.
In an interview after the debate, Nelson dismissed Hagedorn's criticism saying she has never told people whom they should vote for and said the attack is "desperate."
Among those listening closely to the debate was Blue Earth Republican County Chairwoman Willa Dialey. She said she has decided not to endorse in the race. After watching the Republicans go head to head for the first time, she said she felt Hagedorn came across as more passionate. However, she said she is keeping an open mind and will watch how Nelson does on the campaign trail.
"Their ideas are very similar," she said. "I'm looking for where I feel the heat and passion here and being able to project that to those of us with strong conservative values."