NORTHFIELD – Adam Favro lopped off a lock of Duane Kaczmarek’s hair the other day at Bridge Square Barbers as the two discussed the political discord thriving around them.
“There is that four-letter word — hate, which is really prevalent. The question is how do you join people together?” said Kaczmarek, 74, a retired tax accountant. Favro, the 27-year-old barber, said, “It is very, very, very split. There are protests here every Saturday.”
The fractured and motivated mood of Minnesota voters was evident in dozens of interviews across the state last week, just days ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. Many voters said the stakes are historically high, with state policies on taxes, education and health care on the line — along with the future of Donald Trump’s presidency and agenda.
An open governor’s race, two U.S. Senate campaigns and multiple competitive U.S. House races make Minnesota a critical battleground.
“Everything is riding on these midterms and the election coming up in two years,” said Michael Ellingson, 28, a father of two from Bayport who works at Lake Elmo Coffee and described himself as a Democratic socialist.
Ellingson is still researching candidates’ stands on issues such as health care and the minimum wage. He has voted in every presidential election since turning 18, but will vote in his first midterm Tuesday.
Energized voters like Ellingson are fueling a surge in involvement this year. ”It’s a terrible time in history,” said Minneapolis resident Joanne Kurhajec, 65, who cast her ballot at an early voting center last Thursday. When the therapist and social worker realized she would be out of town on Election Day, she said, “I was like, ‘Whoa — I need to vote.’ … We’ve got to hold on to what Minnesota stands for.”
As of Thursday, 86,909 people had voted statewide, compared with 29,455 on the same date in 2016 — an increase of 195 percent, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Conventional wisdom suggests that those numbers reflect urgency among voters eager to reverse GOP control of the Minnesota House, both chambers of Congress and the White House.
But Mike Manoles, 63, a Golden Valley cardiologist, believes Trump is activating Republican voters. Predictions of a “blue wave” on Nov. 6, he said, could be as wrong as polls concluding that Hillary Clinton would beat Trump in 2016.
Manoles voted early for Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson in the Republican race for governor, he said, because Johnson won the party endorsement and because of his stance on issues such as getting rid of the Metropolitan Council. But he expects former Gov. Tim Pawlenty to win the primary and said he’d back the GOP nominee in November.
The lively campaign for governor, which also features three DFLers — state Rep. Erin Murphy, Attorney General Lori Swanson and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz — is attracting broad interest among Minnesota voters as DFL Gov. Mark Dayton retires after two terms.
A Pawlenty victory would be “disastrous” for the state, said Sigmund Krane, 74, a retired college professor in Golden Valley. He voted early for Walz because he thinks the congressman has the best chance of winning statewide.
In a year when a record number of women are running for office, some Murphy and Swanson supporters said gender was a decisive factor.
Christopher Bineham, 35, voted for Murphy on Thursday in St. Paul because he wants more women leaders in office for their experience and perspectives. Bineham, a freelance editor, passed on Swanson because he was bothered by how she handled accusations that her running mate, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, did not take seriously allegations that an aide had sexually harassed women in Nolan’s office.
Joe Williams, 77, a retired autoworker from St. Louis Park, voted for Swanson. “It’s time for a woman,” he said.
Other Minnesotans offered a slew of issues that will influence their votes: veterans’ needs, affordable housing, the farm economy, the stability of Medicare and Social Security.
But the president — his governing style, his rhetoric and whether his policies should be encouraged or thwarted — is a dominant theme. His name isn’t on the ballot, but it is on many voters’ minds.
At the barbershop in Northfield, Favro and Kaczmarek agreed that Trump has helped the economy. “What he’s doing is helping me out a little bit more than I expected,” said the barber. “I’m quite impressed,” his customer added.
This is how John Kubinski, 46, owner of John’s Bait & Tackle in Faribault, gauges the impact of Trump’s policies on his life: “People are spending money and not watching every penny,” he said. “I’m finally making more profit, putting money in the bank.”
Kubinski’s mom is in a nursing home, so he’s frustrated with the health care system. He thinks too many people claim disabilities; they qualify for free fishing licenses, so he meets many of them. And he wishes the country would “take care of more of our own people and not give [immigrants] the world.”
He felt that way long before Trump’s 2016 campaign, Kubinski said, “but he’s just finally saying what everybody’s thinking.”
Gloria Murman, 65, a retired nonprofit worker from St. Louis Park, approaches the Trump question from the opposite side of the political spectrum. She views the crowded DFL races for governor and the Fifth Congressional District as a sign that her party is strong and excited.
There are “more good candidates than there has been in the past,” Murman said. “It’s definitely more important this year. We just have to keep the [blue] wave going.”
Beneath that enthusiasm, however, there’s a strain of dispirited pessimism among some of the state’s voters.
Mike Russell, 71, a retired jet mechanic from Castle Rock, has never voted for a Republican. Over the past few years, though, he’s been disappointed in Democrats’ emphasis on issues such as the removal of Confederate statues and “who could use what bathroom.”
“They’re not unimportant, but they probably actually motivated people on the other side,” he said. “I thought there were big issues being sidestepped,” such as the Iraq war and surveillance of Americans.
“We’ve become so polarized, so emotional,” Russell said. “I think it’s going to take some kind of national crisis for everybody to come together.”
Sonja Ausen, 37, a Minneapolis resident who works at a spirituality center, was mindful of the gravity of the moment when she voted early.
She chose candidates who won’t govern with “moral cruelty,” she said. “I feel so powerless. … This feels so small to me, but it feels essential.”
Kathryn Ananda-Owens is a classical pianist and college music professor in Northfield. She’s an independent voter who called herself middle-aged. Sitting at a picnic table outside Just Food Co-op, she described her dissatisfaction with politics and her hopes.
“I’m through with talking points,” she said. “I want to hear why people believe what they believe, why they vote the way they vote, and I don’t want something cookie-cutter. I want my elected officials to represent me, and I want them to listen to me.”
Ananda-Owens is encouraged by reports of increased voter registration among the young. “I’m not prepared to write this country off. I’m absolutely not prepared to write democracy off,” she said.
“This is one of those elections where I feel I have to get off of my chair and start working for the people who I believe in. It’s time for us to start grabbing hands and working together instead of just shouting each other down.”
Star Tribune staff writers Kelly Smith, Jessie Van Berkel and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.