Republican Senate candidate Jason Lewis stopped by Brainerd on the first stop Thursday, Jan. 23, of a multi-city tour in what the former congressman calls a push to connect with rural voters through an unapologetically pro-Greater Minnesota message.
“This is going to be a campaign about Greater Minnesota,” Lewis said. “For far too long Greater Minnesota has been neglected, I think, by some of the state’s federal office holders and that’s gotta be a thing of the past. What we’re seeing is whether it’s on the Iron Range, Crow Wing County, or — doesn’t really matter where it is — there are voices not being heard.”
Lewis has doubled down on that count — spending upwards of six weeks total traveling throughout Minnesota. During this week alone, he planned to stop at Brainerd, Mankato, Luverne, Bemidji, Duluth and Ely before it’s said and done. In contrast, he said, his opponent, incumbent Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is decidedly rooted in the urban Twin Cities, where the vast majority of her supporters, collaborators and moneyed interests reside.
While Lewis has spent much of his life in the Woodbury suburb of the Twin Cities metro, or out of state in Colorado and Iowa, he said it’s a matter of shared experience to reach rural Minnesotans. This shared experience is one he’s acquired, he said, through years spent in small towns, or vacationing along the Whitefish Chain, or listening to rural concerns about estate taxes, broadband, mining or job development.
Lewis is coming off a downturn in his political career — namely, losing to freshman Democrat Angie Craig by 6 percentage points in the suburban 2nd Congressional District. But the last decade has largely represented a rise to national prominence for the former radio talk show host, whose program was nationally syndicated between 2009 and 2015.
Smith — who Lewis dubbed the “accidental senator” — represents a leftward shift away from the historical balance Republicans and Democrats in Minnesotan have enjoyed in the past.
While he had hoped Smith would be more moderate during her tenure on Capitol Hill, Lewis said, Smith has come to represent the “academic elite,” the “resistance,” and the “professional protester crowd.” He said Smith hasn’t publicly opposed progressive initiatives like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, although he acknowledged Smith hasn’t publicly supported either initiative as well.
On the other hand, Lewis pointed to the 2016 GOP tax bill, which he credited with leading to the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, promoting wage increases for the lowest earning workers, and spurring economic growth across the nation. Successful policies like these represent why President Donald Trump shifted the political paradigm away from decades of Democratic control in 2016, Lewis said, and it points to how he intends to beat Smith in 2020.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Trump spoke Wednesday on the topic of entitlements — particularly, Social Security and Medicaid — and stated any options to rein in entitlement spending would be the “easiest of all things” to counteract a swelling federal deficit that’s tacked on nearly $3 trillion in national debt during his presidency.
Lewis iterated at multiple points that programs like Social Security and Medicaid have to be restructured and reformed to ensure they’re sustainable for the future. Included in the 2016 GOP tax bill was a $200 billion reduction in mandatory spending for entitlement programs — a reduction Lewis lauded. He said this represents one direction the federal government should take to further curb unnecessary spending.
Lewis pointed to Medicaid expansions under Obamacare and noted increased subsidies and coverage for able-bodied, childless adults presented one such case of wasteful investments by the federal government.
“You have to address mandatory spending, because it’s the bulk of the budget. You’ve got a $4.1 trillion budget, literally $3 trillion of that is entitlement spending,” Lewis said. “If we do nothing for Social Security and the money starts to run out in 2035, benefits will be cut by 25% and I won’t stand for that.”
Payroll taxes, which form the lifeblood of Social Security, are an area of focus. Lewis said much of his approach is driven by economic growth and stable, well-paying jobs for employees, in contrast to Smith, which proposes a higher tax rate on people’s wages.
Raising the retirement age isn’t a concern for people who are currently eligible or near eligible to receive Social Security benefits, said Lewis, who noted he’s in favor of maintaining that standard for older Minnesotans, but added a higher retirement age may be necessary to ensure benefits are still around for younger Minnesotans down the road.
Tax bill ramifications
In terms of the 2016 GOP tax bill and its effects on the U.S. economy, supporters, including Lewis, have pointed to a booming stock market and record low unemployment, while critics, including Smith, have noted the bill increased the nation’s debt load by $1.5 trillion and largely benefited wealthier Americans and corporations.
Lewis said the bill incurred a $1.5 trillion debt, but was offset by increased federal revenues that matched and exceeded, if slightly, the burden placed on Washington to fill the gap previously accounted for by tax income. However, Lewis did not specify how the federal government accrued these revenues, or if they would be used to help pay off the nation’s growing $23 trillion debt load, which he termed an “existential crisis” during discussions with the Dispatch.
To better limit spending, Lewis said audits of federal agencies where wasteful spending can be in the billions, including the Pentagon, are in order, as well as accompanying legislation to ensure the budget process is transparent, carefully considered and productive. He noted it has to be a holistic and unsparing approach, not one that favors a particular aspect of government over another.
“You can’t say, we’re going to leave the Pentagon alone and cut social programs. Chuck Schumer would never go for that. At the same time, you can’t say we’ll gut the Pentagon and up spending on social programs. Republicans, rightfully, would never go for that,” Lewis said. “We have to say, ‘Everybody put a limit on the growth.’”