State Fair attendees this week munched on Pronto Pups, wolfed down Sweet Martha’s cookies and got a large dose of presidential politics.
The start of fair season signals the end of the summer and also serves as the unofficial kickoff of the political season.
Political booths staffed by the Minnesota Republican and DFL parties featured interactive exhibits intended to get fairgoers to start thinking more seriously about which candidates they will back in the November election.
“Everybody starts thinking seriously about politics after the fair,” said Keith Downey, chairman of the state Republican Party, as the scent of freshly-baked cookies hung heavily in the air.
Political office seekers and their surrogates will be making their pitch to thousands of attendees that will descend daily on the state fairgrounds through Labor Day. Both parties have booths, along with other political groups.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken also have separate booths set up, but they are for official business. Similarly, the state House and Senate have booths where Minnesotans can chat up visiting legislators.
The fair is an annual rite of passage for just about all levels of political leaders, each offering their own twist on what to eat and how to work the fair crowds.
Klobuchar and her daughter were at the fair opening day at 6 a.m., greeting attendees. Politicians often use the fair as a backdrop for interviews and news conferences, as Gov. Mark Dayton did Friday when unveiling new steps to protect bees and other pollinators.
New this year at the Republican Party’s booth is an interactive poll where visitors can pick three prominent Republicans they would like to see serve in a Donald Trump administration. Choices included former political rivals of Trump, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as well as Trump’s three grown children, Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka. (Carson led the polling Thursday afternoon.)
Despite concerns that protests aimed at Trump could mar the State Fair, Downey said there have been “no hassles” — just “as usual, there’s always active debate.”
Perhaps the most popular attraction at the GOP booth was a cardboard cutout of Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, depicting her in a black-and-white prison jumpsuit.
“I got my photo taken with her,” said Bill Saumer, a 57-year-old farmer from Pine City.
A staunch Republican, Saumer said Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as the nation’s top diplomat should disqualify her from the presidency.
“If you or I would have done half of the stuff that she’s done, we wouldn’t be having a job and running for higher office.”
Bernie Gatzke, a 65-year-old retired facilities manager from Minneapolis, strolled by the GOP booth and attempted to provoke a debate. A Democrat, Gatzke said he doesn’t like the divisive rhetoric coming from the Trump campaign.
He argued that Clinton’s experience made her best qualified to be president, but he conceded he didn’t necessarily trust her judgment.
“I’m a Hillary supporter. She’s not my favorite candidate. I wish we had other choices,” he said.
A short walk away, the DFL booth teemed with volunteers registering voters. The stand featured cardboard cutouts of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as a cutout of Clinton — one without a prison jumpsuit.
Khadra Hussien, a 36-year-old early childhood educator from Minneapolis, was visiting the State Fair with her young daughter, 8-year-old Badria Khalif.
As they passed by the Minnesota DFL booth, Badria spotted a Clinton campaign shirt that she implored her mother to buy for her.
Hussien said she planned to vote for Clinton because she liked her plan for education policy and spending. Trump, however, was another reason she planned to vote this fall.
She singled out the anti-immigrant rhetoric by Trump and his surrogates that she said is ill-informed.
“It’s really sad,” Hussien said. “They don’t know anything about us, but they just say bad things about us.”
Hussien, who is from Somalia, said that “instead of insulting people without knowing them, it’s better if you know them first.” She added that immigrants like her have embraced the American dream.
“I love this country,” she said.
The unpopularity of both presidential candidates has Tim Utz excited about the prospects for his candidate, Darrell Castle, the Constitution Party’s presidential candidate.
“There’s a lot of interest in all third parties this year,” Utz said. “They don’t like their choices between Democrats and Republicans. A lot of Democrats don’t like Clinton and conservative Republicans don’t love Trump.”
The Constitution Party has prime real estate at the fair for boosting name recognition, located kitty-corner from the Food Building.
“A lot of people don’t know we exist,” said Utz, adding that this is now their second presidential election in the new location. “We have a lot more interaction with people,” he said.