When it comes to politics, there isn’t a lot of togetherness on display at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
A man stormed into the Republican Party booth one day last week and announced that the volunteers and fairgoers inside all needed to wake up. At the DFL Party booth, a man was escorted out after he loudly called former President Barack Obama a “half-breed.”
During a live WCCO radio interview with state Sen. Karin Housley, a man yelled a crude synonym for manure as the Republican U.S. Senate nominee criticized her DFL opponent, Sen. Tina Smith. And outside the sheep barn, a woman wearing a Hillary Clinton T-shirt was taunted by a stranger who called her and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee “stupid losers.”
Divisions among Minnesotans as the Nov. 6 midterms approach and acrimony over President Donald Trump are undercurrents at the State Fair, people from both parties said in interviews. Some of them described their anger and dismay over the political climate.
“It’s gotten really ugly. It’s gotten scary,” said Cynthia Dinzeo, who was volunteering in the GOP booth during the “wake up” incident. “I feel really sad sometimes. I feel sad for my grandkids,” said Dinzeo, 66, a school bus driver from St. Paul. “I wish we could all get along, plain and simple.”
After buying a $3 DFL pin and pinning it on his shirt, Gust Johnson echoed her gloomy outlook from the other end of the political spectrum.
“I’m really losing faith in the American public, to be truthful,” said the retired nurse and Vietnam War veteran, 69, who lives in Minneapolis. “I’m just thinking that our country could be in a severe slide and that we might not ever recover.” Pessimism and the partisan breach are deepening in national polls. Most Democratic voters say the country is moving in the wrong direction; Republican voters disagree. Approval of the president’s policies are similarly split.
Another trend that affects Minnesota: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that both rural and urban residents believe the other group doesn’t understand their problems or share their values.
The partisan schism is infecting sports — in the debate over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, for example — workplaces and the fair, where some people said they are afraid to even talk about their views.
On edge over politics
Beth Miller and Joanne Champine, friends from Mound, decided the fair would be a great place to recruit supporters for their favorite candidate, so they wore identical blue Phillips for Congress T-shirts. Dean Phillips is the DFL nominee for the Third Congressional District seat.
“I consider myself a walking billboard for Dean, so I wear it every opportunity I can,” said retiree Champine, 72. She hoped people would ask her about Phillips so she could “discuss issues and see if we can build something together.”
Miller, a 45-year-old nurse, was a little worried that her shirt would prompt “a bad reaction.” She hoped for a more “subliminal” payback on Election Day. Maybe voters would remember, she said, that “those people looked nice and they were wearing that shirt.”
Clinton and Michelle Meier spent some time at the GOP booth partly because of its welcoming environment.
At home in Sherburne County, said Michelle Meier, 55, she’s reluctant to talk about her political beliefs. “I’m ashamed that our country is to the point where certain people think they can voice their opinion and not let other people voice theirs,” she said.
Her husband, 56, shares her chagrin, especially on Second Amendment issues. After shootings, he said, Democrats blame gun laws, not the culprit. “You need to go after the person and make them accountable for it,” he said.
Another visitor to the GOP booth, Connie Ahlgren of Dassel, Minn., also was seeking a respite from an inhospitable political climate. “It’s unfortunate that sometimes I feel stifled,” she said after describing herself as “very conservative and very Republican.”
When she tries to discuss her views, people who disagree “get angry and very loud,” said Ahlgren, 68, who is retired. Those reactions have increased her interest in politics and made her more determined to vote, she said.
A big draw at the Republican Party booth is the chance to pose for photos with almost life-size cutout images of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. MAGA (Make American Great Again) hats that sell for $30 are the hottest item. A $25 T-shirt with Trump’s face is most popular, followed by one featuring President Ronald Reagan.
At the DFL booth, people can sign up for yard signs and shop. The top-selling T-shirt reads “Democrats believe science is real, no human is illegal, black lives matter, families belong together, women’s rights are human rights, love is love.” It sells for $20.
Linda Rehkamp was on a mission when she visited the DFL’s booth at the fair. She quizzed a DFL staffer about allegations of domestic abuse against U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the party’s nominee for state attorney general. Satisfied with the answers, she decided to stick with him, then signed up for a Klobuchar yard sign.
“I’m very enthused and I want to get more involved” in campaigns, said Rehkamp, 68, who is semiretired and lives in St. Cloud. Although she’s “always more positive and hopeful,” she admitted to some qualms about the election based on flawed predictions of the 2016 outcome.
“Every time they say it’s a blue wave coming, I think, ‘Oh yeah, and Hillary’s going to win, too,’ ” she said.
Country vs. city divide
Less visible at the fair is another political dynamic with implications for November and beyond: Rural voters vote more Republican and city dwellers are more Democratic.
In 2016, exit polls showed that Republicans gained 9 percentage points among rural voters while Democratic support dropped by 11 points — a shift that was mirrored in Minnesota, and Trump came close to pulling off an upset here.
Ellsworth, Wis., dairy farmer Hayden Hauschildt can spot the city residents as they wander past his Brown Swiss cows Cinderella and To Die For at the fair. He encourages them to ask questions — even “silly ones like is this animal a boy or a girl?” But he doesn’t think they understand his work or how it affects them. “They know that the grocery store is always full,” said Hauschildt, 27.
Kendall Davis brought his toddler daughter to the cattle barn at the fair because she loves animals.
He admitted that he knows little about farmers’ lives or values.
“It’s definitely a difference between country people and city folk,” said Davis, 24, an auto technician who lives in Champlin. “Everybody sees a different future.”
The fair “celebrates a sense of we-ness among all Minnesotans,” said Michael Rosenbaum, who teaches sociology at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
But differences between rural and urban residents have “become more meaningful in the last few decades, and especially in the current political environment given the strong correlation between party affiliation and population density,” he said. “People are sorting themselves into geographic bubbles despite the increasing diversity.”
Heather Duneman, 34, a mom and drafter for a window and door company who lives in Owatonna, believes the fair can help bridge that divide.
“I hope it helps people understand each other’s points of view and where they’re coming from,” she said.