ROSEMOUNT, Minn. (FOX 9) - The rematch between Democratic U.S. Rep. Angie Craig and Republican challenger Tyler Kistner has been one of the country's most expensive congressional races, but Thursday presented the only chance for voters to see the candidates debate one another.
At times during the feisty one-hour meeting, the debate resembled an in-person version of the television ads that are reverberating around Minnesota's second congressional district. Seated on stage at separate tables in front of a packed room at Dakota County Technical College, Craig and Kistner took turns lobbing criticism over the economy, abortion, and elections.
The debate started just after a new report showed U.S. inflation was 8.2% in September, stubbornly near a 40-year high. Kistner blamed Democrats' stimulus efforts for price increases.
"When you look at the cause of inflation, you don't have to look any further than the last two years' voting record of Congresswoman Craig," Kistner said. "How do you fix this? How do you make the cost of living affordable again for people? You start reigning in that out-of-control government spending.
The criticism mirrors what outside groups have said in anti-Craig ads. Economists generally agree that government stimulus contributed to inflation, but it wasn't the only factor, a FOX 9 Fact Check previously found.
Tyler Kistner and Rep. Angie Craig (FOX 9)
During the debate, Craig said the stimulus protected Minnesota jobs and businesses during the recession induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's curious to me, because I think about Mr. Kistner's comments and the question I ask you is, what of that spending in this room would you not have done?" Craig said.
Outside groups have already spent $6 million on the race, according to the tracking website Open Secrets. The money is evenly split between the candidates, and most of the advertising has been negative. Craig narrowly won a second term over Kistner in 2020 in another expensive race.
Many of the anti-Kistner ads focus on abortion. Craig has voted to put abortion rights into federal law after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, contrasting her position with Kistner's.
"My opponent has said he's 100% pro-life," Craig said, referencing a section of Kistner's 2020 campaign website that he later took down. "He's said the abortion ban bill introduced in Congress (by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham) that sends doctors to prison sounds 'reasonable.'"
Kistner said the abortion issue should be left to states. Most abortions are now banned in 13 states, though the procedures are constitutionally protected in Minnesota.
"I'm pro-life with the exceptions of rape, incest, and the life of the mother," Kistner said.
The most intense exchange between the two candidates came after the moderator asked whether they would accept the 2022 election results. When both said they would, Craig questioned Kistner.
"You get up here and you pretend to be the boy next door, but you are too extreme for Minnesota's second district," she said, drawing murmurs in the crowd.
"I will just say, Congresswoman Craig, I have not seen someone run a more dishonest campaign than you have this election cycle," Kistner responded.
During the debate, Craig raised questions about Biden's plan for up to $20,000 in student loan relief, saying she disagreed with both the policy and the president's plan to implement it by executive action.
"I'm opposed to any policy that seeks to spend $400 billion without congressional approval or authority," she told reporters afterward.
Republicans have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to stop the plan. The Biden administration said this week it expects to release applications for debt relief later this month.
"I think we ought to be tackling the issue from the other side of it," Craig said. "Why does higher education cost so much? How do we drive down the cost of higher education in our country? Not blanket student loan forgiveness."
Speaking with reporters, neither candidate expressed interest in campaigning with either of their parties' most recent presidents.
Kistner said he hadn't asked former President Donald Trump to campaign with him in the district. Craig said she hadn't asked President Joe Biden, either. Craig has said Biden shouldn't run for a second term in 2024.