It’s hard to look cool milking a cow. But there’s Minnesota’s speaker of the House in front of a State Fair crowd, wearing Nikes and safety gloves as he works the udder of a very composed Holstein, its milk streaming into a stainless steel bucket.
Speaker Kurt Daudt, whose statewide political ambitions are a topic of much speculation for Minnesota’s political class, is in a contest of ag skills at the fair’s dairy barn with other local quasi-celebrities, including a University of Minnesota dean, a TV newscaster and some roller derby and women’s football players.
The Republican from Isanti County’s willingness to publicly milk a cow is one tiny clue in the mystery of whether he’ll run for governor in 2018. “It’s great fun for us to come out and help support our dairy industry in the state of Minnesota,” says Daudt, who spent this recent day at the fair feasting on fried cookie dough, a milk shake and a turkey sandwich.
(Note the Minnesota constituencies: wheat, sugar, dairy, poultry.)
Amid the loop-dee-loop rides, the fried this-and-that, the ag barns, the monarch butterfly and reptile tents, politics is a yearly fixture at the fair, too.
Because it’s not an election year, it’s a bit more low key this time. And for many Minnesotans, the fair is a respite from the political noise — like construction machinery in perpetual reverse — emanating from the capitols in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul.
The butter sculpture of Princess Kay contestant Samantha Traxler, of Le Sueur County, draws as much or more interest than the politics booths.
“People are sick of arguing with their neighbors about it,” says Scott Graham, a DFL activist who volunteers at the party’s booth. But he acknowledges he can’t be sure; he took a morning shift before fairgoers are “too beveraged,” as he politely puts it.
Fair politics are often less about average voters and more about the parties and candidates trying to attract donors and activists who will be the foot soldiers on the long march toward winning in 2018.
Trump merchandise is selling like mini doughnuts at the state Republican Party’s booth, where new state Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan wants to sell sell sell and convey brand clarity. The booth is festooned with a giant red image of Minnesota and the slogan: Make MN Red.
The chance of a Republican governor and full control of state government is so close they can taste it.
Vince Beaudette, a GOP activist from Carver County, notes that President Donald Trump lost Minnesota by just 1.5 percentage points. “Trump nearly won. And there were a lot of Trump haters,” he says, though he’s not one of them. He loves Trump. “Forget what he says. I love his policies.”
GOP booth visitors who give their e-mail address — useful later for volunteering and fundraising pitches — get to drop a kernel of corn in a glass jug as a way of voting for their favorite candidate for governor. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who was the 2014 GOP nominee, is the favorite in this year’s corn poll, but state Sen. David Osmek is showing surprising strength.
Osmek says his favorite fair food is the fresh-squeezed lemonade. “I had a liberal here that I lit up. It’s good practice,” he says with a broad grin. The subject: global warming. He’s a skeptic. “I’m sorry, I’m not going along with it, and the majority of Minnesotans agree with me.”
Stacy Carlin knows the Carnahan family, so she and friend Philip Ayotte came over to say hello to Carnahan at the GOP booth.
Carlin said she wants a centrist, from either party, as the next governor. She’s the type of voter that both parties increasingly ignore, as they huddle in their respective ideological bunkers. Carlin’s favorite fair food: corn dogs. Ayotte’s? “Beer.”
You’ve got to be here, says Republican candidate for governor Keith Downey, a former state legislator and party chairman. His fair booth is decked out to look like a suburban backyard.
“If you’re serious about being governor of the whole state, you have to be at the fair,” he says.
The whole state, even the potheads. Rep. Matt Dean, another GOP candidate for governor, is getting a few questions about legalizing marijuana at his booth. “I don’t know if it’s the green color of the booth or not, but we get that question a lot,” says Dean, who uses the fair to meet up with potential volunteers and convention delegates. He’s clocking in 10 or 12 hours a day, sneaking in some bacon-on-a-stick for sustenance.
Not all the conversations help candidates lock down delegates for next year’s conventions. Michael Mason of Spring Park, a Navy veteran and DFLer, is here on the fair’s military appreciation day; he corners Dean to share some opinions about Trump. He’s not a fan. Mason likes to have conversations with an array of people, he says: “No matter where you go in life, it’s who you meet and who you talk to.”
Politics might not be on everyone’s mind, but a couple Minnesota politicos are an irresistible draw. A crowd 20 people deep is lined up to meet and get a photo with Sen. Al Franken. Best T-shirt in the line: “Out of beer. Life is crap.”
Franken, who boasts that last year he won the very same milking contest Daudt joined this year, likes the corn and the pork chop. In perhaps a sign that he has no national political ambitions, he says he doesn’t like fried food. Franken recalls a childhood fair memory, when he diced up Minnesota wrestler Verne Gagne with a great bald joke. (Gagne, you see, was bald.)
Nearly as famous here: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who likes the cheese curds and beer flights. As she walks the fairgrounds, fans stop for photos while she mugs for the camera with a plastic “bubble gun.”
Klobuchar seems to know everyone or their family, like Jana Jass of Brooklyn Center: “Amy does great work for Minnesotans!” Jass says excitedly.
At the Black Lives Matter booth, however, volunteers endure their share of unpleasant encounters, says Anthony Cournoyea, who lives in Hastings and has been here every day. (Favorite fair food: fried veggies.)
An older gentleman could be heard encouraging the volunteers to find work in landscaping. It was unclear why. There are frequent shouts in their direction of “All lives matter!”
“Yes, all lives matter, but we’re focused on the black lives because they’re the most at risk,” Cournoyea says.
Still, the positive outweighs the negative at the fair, he says. Many Minnesotans, most white, express their support. “You don’t see too many other places where every type of culture can come and be here and walk around as one,” Cournoyea says.