DULUTH - The major party candidates in the race for the 8th Congressional District met on Friday, Oct. 26, for a radio debate, and for nearly an hour it got as tempestuous between the candidates as any point to date.

It was Republican Pete Stauber and Democrat Joe Radinovich arguing and needing to be corralled by moderator Mike Mulcahy of Minnesota Public Radio.

“Just be a little more civil,” Mulcahy told them at one point, as the candidates talked over one another and interrupted each in moments of chicken-coop squabble.

If not always fact-based, the conversation was fast-paced. The format was guided by listener-submitted questions, hitting all the big notes.

The fifth and final debate is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. It’s open to the public and Independence Party candidate Ray “Skip” Sandman has been invited back into the fold.

By then, a judge in District Court in Duluth will have decided whether to open Stauber’s campaign emails with the National Republican Congressional Committee. A hearing on that case was happening simultaneously to the public radio debate on Friday.

Here are five takeaways from the MPR debate:

1) The emails came up. And it was fierce.

Stauber was pinned down on the emails like never before in the race. He went first and condemned the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawsuit against St. Louis County. He reminded listeners the county had looked into 22 emails found in Stauber’s county email account and decided against further investigation.

“The fact of the matter is it’s Joe and his allies that are bringing this suit,” Stauber said. “It’s purely partisan.”

He traced the partisanship all the way to the Minnesota Department of Administration opinion which said this month the emails were public and St. Louis County was mistaken not to release them. Stauber called it the Dayton administration’s opinion.

“He could end this just by releasing the emails,” Radinovich said, arguing that political allies on the St. Louis County Board were working in league with Stauber.

Mulcahy wouldn’t allow Radinovich to speculate on what was in the emails.

“The public has a right to know what’s going on with their money and their resources,” Radinovich said. “This is Pete communicating with special interests in Washington, D.C.”

2)  Callback to a ‘scalpel’

During a previous candidate forum in Brainerd, Radinovich compared the use of tariffs by presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama by saying Trump used a chainsaw and Obama a scalpel. Trump’s blanket tariffs of 25 percent were imprecise, Radinovich said then, and hurting groups such as soybean farmers.

The scalpel metaphor came up again on the radio, only this time Stauber wielded it when talking about federal budgets and drawing down the national debt.

“It’s irresponsible for me now, with thousands of pages of budgets, to say we’re going to cut here and here,” Stauber said. “I’ll have the ability when elected to go in and use a scalpel. We know there is waste, fraud and abuse.”

When pressed to say where, he identified cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It was a dog whistle of a claim that serves the notion that low-income folks are to blame for things such as budget deficits. One could almost hear Radinovich roll his eyes.

“You’re not naming one single area (for budget cuts), except for food stamps?” Radinovich said, quickly distilling for listeners a common understanding of the SNAP program.  

3) Best lines

  • Stauber on being a small-business owner: “I’ve had to reach into my back pocket to make payroll when cashflow is short.” It was one of a number of strong points and anecdotes he shared about small business and meeting business owners along the campaign trail.
  • “I’ve never voted anywhere other than Crosby,” Radinovich said, swatting back at a claim aimed at scoring cheap points that he hasn’t always resided in the district.

4) Pledges flew about taxes cuts and cuts to Social Security

When the moderator asked Stauber if he pledged not to cut Social Security and Medicare, Stauber gave a response more open to interpretation than he had in the past: “We will preserve and strengthen Medicare and Social Security for those seniors,” Stauber said.

Radinovich pledged to go the other way on tax cuts, saying he would work to repeal the Trump Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in favor of tax cuts for the middle class and not the “top income earners.”

In one exchange, both issues conflated as Radinovich said tax cuts for the wealthy were responsible for raising the deficit and fueling a GOP desire to address cuts to other programs.

“Your own administration has said the plan for next session is to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Radinovich said. “It’s on the record. It’s a fact.”

“The bottom line is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has reinvigorated this economy,” Stauber responded. “Small businessman like myself really appreciate that.”

5) On the topic of guns

The campaign trail’s best discussion on guns and gun reform occurred during the radio debate.

Radinovich argued against bump stocks, high magazine clips and “glaring loopholes” found at gun shows, where “you can pick out any gun you want without having to go through a background check,” he said.

“The fact of the matter is Joe and I agree on this,” Stauber said, speaking generally and describing how he’d prefer to have more universalized training across states for conceal and carry owners.

“It’s a huge responsibility to carry concealed,” Stauber said, the retired Duluth police officer comparing it to how driver education allows everyone to know everyone else has basic competency.

The agreement with Radinovich lasted only a heartbeat as Stauber proceeded to condemn Democrats for wanting to background check a grandson receiving a hand-me-down rifle.

“Your allies want to restrict giving family members guns,” Stauber said. “That’s what you’re saying.”

Eight days to the general election Nov. 6.