A slight political bent to Farmfest

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2014 - 6:05 PM

Debate among governor candidates was quietly interesting.

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Gubernatorial candidates during a debate Tuesday at Farmfest, from left: Republicans Scott Honour, Kurt Zellers, Marty Seifert and Jeff Johnson, and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet.

Photo: Anna Haecherl-Smith • The Independent via Associated Press,

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– Farmfest is not the State Fair, though it might be Machinery Hill on steroids. Now that Minnesota’s primary election is in August, the event was the place to be last week to absorb the sights and sounds of pre-primary politics while simultaneously savoring the smell of grilled pork chops.

Based on those observations, I’ll make a bold prediction: Turnout is going to be low on Tuesday. Low enough, I fear, to make a Minnesota turnout braggart blush. And to increase the chance of some surprise outcomes. And to give primary winners a less-than-energetic launch into the general election campaign.

Candidate lawn signs might be “so 20th century!” Then again, maybe the dearth of signs for any candidate other than Redwood County native son Marty Seifert on the highways in and around Morgan last Tuesday said something about lethargic campaigns and low interest in this year’s premier primary contests. (A reminder: The big contests Tuesday are for the Republican nominations for U.S. Senate, governor and the congressional Sixth District, and the DFL nomination for state auditor.)

At the start of Tuesday’s main event, a five-way gubernatorial candidates’ debate among four Republicans and Independence Party contender Hannah Nicollet, the Wicks Forum Building was barely half full. As the Q&A continued for 80 minutes, more festgoers wandered in, but it wasn’t clear whether they came for politics or for shade from the increasingly hot sun.

The debate may have stoked interest in the fall election, in which the GOP primary winner and the IP’s Nicollet will take on DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. The candidates piled on Dayton for not joining their debate, to the crowd’s approval.

(Dayton did a solo act at Farmfest on Thursday. His debate strategy is the classic one of an incumbent who’s leading in the polls: Let the opposition settle on one candidate, then deign to debate just often enough to muzzle accusations of hiding from the opposition. Dayton has vowed six debates this fall, which should fill that bill.)

But with the primary a week away, Tuesday’s Farmfest encounter represented a down-to-the-wire chance to drum up interest in the Republican intraparty competition. The chance was not well-seized. Rather than drawing contrasts with one another, the four GOP candidates harmonized in a repetitious chorus of “let’s get government out of the way.”

Seifert, a former House GOP minority leader who’s been out of elective office for four years, had the most applause lines. But that was likely aided by the fact that he had more friends and neighbors in the crowd, identifiable by their navy blue campaign T-shirts and stickers. No other candidate bothered to adorn backers that way.

He let it be known that his old Future Farmers of America jacket resides in a closet 10 miles south of the Farmfest site; that he intends to keep his home in Marshall if he’s elected, and that he’s well aware that the price of corn suddenly appears headed to a crazy-low $3.50 a bushel.

That last point belongs on a governor’s radar. Yes, Minnesota isn’t the farm-dominated state it was a half-century ago. The number of farms in the state was down to fewer than 75,000 in the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, compared with 131,000 in 1964. But add its related enterprises, and agriculture still drives a good 20 percent of the state economy (or so I was told at the Farmer’s Union tent) and a similar share of state employment.

High corn prices in the last four years helped Minnesota rebound from the Great Recession more rapidly than most states and contributed to a healthier state government balance sheet. But that suggests that the recent stunning nose-dive in corn prices could alter the state’s outlook, with changes in political prospects likely to follow.

As of yet, though, there’s little sign of political unrest on the prairie — particularly in the DFL telling. “Farmers know that politicians can’t make the price of corn rise or fall,” said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union and himself a once-upon-a-time DFL candidate for governor. His assessment: “People are pretty happy” with the state’s low unemployment rate, the move to all-day kindergarten, a public college tuition freeze, and tax relief for low-income renters and homeowners, all of which boost Dayton’s stock.

Predictably, a somewhat contrary idea was voiced at the Farm Bureau tent. “People in Greater Minnesota are looking for a change this year,” said Miles Kuschel of Sebeka, a 31-year-old member of the National Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Rancher Committee. “They want a more rural voice. People feel that the Twin Cities control this state. We’re not getting the infrastructure we need, the roads and bridges.”

To that point: Every GOP candidate for governor wants to spend more on roads and bridges. None of them wants to raise the highway-­dedicated gas tax to pay for them. Instead, they pitch a magical blend of smarter prioritization, Minnesota Department of Transportation efficiencies, bonding, and defunding of metro light-rail transit, claiming that those measures can finance the transportation work Greater Minnesota needs.

The audience took that in impassively, though one fellow of known Republican allegiance allowed during intermission that he’d ridden the new Green Line to the Aug. 2 Paul McCartney concert at Target Field and thought it was pretty slick.

It was an offhand comment — and a revealing one. The old urban/rural divide is still evident at Farmfest, in an assessment like Kuschel’s. But it’s not as wide as it once was. More than ever, rural Minnesotans see their fates tied to the success of the metro area. My hope is that metro folk are as enlightened about the converse.

Note to Seifert, who plays the “I’m rural” card well: Emphasizing Greater Minnesota might be helpful in a Republican primary. But playing up rural resentment of the metro area could backfire in the general election.

Corn was selling for a sorry $3.70 per bushel on Thursday. But unemployment in the Twin Cities was the lowest for any metro area in the country, and the latest state median household income ranking pegged Minnesota at a respectable ninth-highest in the nation. The political agitation that was palpable at summer festivals in 2010, foretelling an upset at the State Capitol, has becalmed itself.

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