ST. PAUL — Front-running candidates for Minnesota's November U.S. Senate race — Democratic incumbent Tina Smith and Republican former-U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis — teed up for their first debate against one another of 2020 on the first day of Farmfest.

The Tuesday, Aug. 4, virtual debate centered around Minnesota agriculture and rural economies, ranging in questions on the coronavirus pandemic's impact on an already floundering agricultural economy, to ongoing trade wars, to the passage of USMCA, to renewable energy, temporary work visas and more. The two candidates — if they win their respective party primaries next week — will face off in November's general election.

Smith focused on what she dubbed as Lewis's unreliability with rural Minnesota issues, noting several times in the hour-long debate that Lewis was the only member of the Minnesota congressional delegation at the time to vote no on the 2018 Farm Bill. Agricultural policy, she said, is normally an area in Washington where lawmakers are willing to reach across the aisle.

"I think that that's important for you to understand about whether or not he's going to be a reliable, trusted advocate for Minnesota agriculture when it comes to something as vitally important as the Farm Bill," Smith said Tuesday.

Smith's campaign also recently shot at Lewis for comments he made in a 1998 television appearance, where he said of government farm subsidies, "Government shouldn’t have anything to do with farming," according to the Star Tribune.

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Lewis, on the other hand, focused throughout the debate on COVID-19-related shutdowns and their impact on the agricultural economy — which was already floundering before the pandemic and nationwide economic downturn. He said what Minnesota farmers need "right now is relief from these government-imposed lock-downs," as well as overall deregulation, trade re-negotiations and tax cuts in order to lower barriers for growers and producers.

For instance, when Smith pointed to restaurants and school cafeterias as promising local and regional markets for farmers, Lewis agreed, but said those markets are only viable if those places are open.

"You have to make it viable through a rising tide of economic growth," he said. "You’re not going to get any of those programs, nor the funding necessary, if we insist on this lock-down."

Speaking on the meat processing market specifically, Lewis said "we've got to get the hog market back up and running again." He pointed to backlogs of hogs that couldn't be slaughtered and processed earlier in the spring, when several meat processing plants in the region closed after seeing some of the nation's largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country at the time.

Lewis said he was glad to see President Donald Trump's April executive order for meat plants to remain open or reopen, though plants at the time did not shut down due to government mandate, but by their own fruition in an attempt to control the virus's spread among their workers.

"We need to quit overreacting," Lewis said Tuesday.

Both Smith and Lewis will each face four primary opponents in their respective party primaries on Tuesday, Aug. 11. If they win, they will face one another in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 3.