In debate, Jason Lewis veers into debunked conspiracy theories about wildfires in the West

Duluth News Tribune Editorial Page Editor Chuck Frederick helped moderate a debate between U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and former U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis on Friday. Both candidates have recently quarantined due to COVID-19 exposures.

Jason Lewis, the former talk radio host and one term Republican congressman veered into debunked conspiracy theories about wildfires and urban rioting during a debate with Sen. Tina Smith in their U.S. Senate race.

Regarding wildfires in the West, he said, “And by the way, when it comes to wildfires, it is amazing how smart these wildfires are. I don’t know what it is, but they’re very, very intelligent because they seem to stop at the Canadian border.” 

He was reciting a debunked theory about wildfires. As PolitiFact noted, the claim was erroneously made by some people on the Internet, citing a map of U.S. wildfires that did not include fires in Canada.

The two sparred in their second debate, fighting over police reform, the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and copper-nickel mining on the Iron Range. The Duluth News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the hour-long debate, held virtually.

On the pandemic, Lewis said “it’s time to open up Minnesota,” saying people’s liberties have been infringed upon by pandemic restrictions imposed by nearly governors across the country.  

“The former congressman continues to downplay the seriousness of this pandemic,” Smith responded. “The way back, the path forward is to protect our public health, move toward therapeutics, and to get a vaccine done.”

Lewis accused Smith of opposing copper-nickel mining, which he said could lead to “the next renaissance” for the Iron Range, even though conservationists say it would threaten precious waters. 

Smith wouldn’t say whether she favored the projects or not. : “We have important decisions to make about how and where we build these mines. I believe these decisions need to have the facts, and the science and the law lead us.” 

The topic of police reform also came up, with Lewis attempting to tie the Democratic senator with efforts by the Minneapolis City Council to “defund” the police department following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, which sparked days of protests that devolved into riots. 

Smith, who opposes those efforts, nonetheless has called for police reform.

“I think that we can improve the way policing and law enforcement and the way public safety happens in our country,” Smith said during the debate. “I don’t think we should be afraid from looking at what we could do better.”

Lewis, who is continuing to hew closely to the party’s standard bearer President Donald Trump, stated his unequivocal support for law enforcement, and again accused Smith of supporting arguments to defund the police.

“That is not true,” Smith cut in. “I have never supported defunding the police, and you know that quite well.”

“You oppose what Ilhan Omar said then, about police being… ?” Lewis shot back.

“Yes, I do,” Smith said.

“And, yet you endorsed her,” Lewis said. “The fact is they feel they are undercut, and I’m going to back the blue.”

In addition to his wildfire conspiracy mongering, Lewis seemed to suggest that organized groups were staging piles of bricks in cities during Black Lives Matter demonstrations, to help incite riots, another claim largely debunked by PolitiFact

“A pile of bricks doesn’t just magically show up in Kenosha, in Minneapolis, in Portland, in Seattle, in Chicago. There is money behind this, and it looks like interstate money,” Lewis said.  

PolitiFact rated the claim “mostly false,” after calling police departments that say they see no organized links behind the piles of bricks. The fact-checking organization said the claim was partly based on an article from Law Enforcement Today, citing two anonymous sources within the Dallas Police Department.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.