Brian Paul is a self-described “strong Republican” from Milaca who works in housekeeping at Grand Casino. Zoye Jackson is a Democrat from Bloomington who voted twice for Barack Obama, but who now feels his policies have done little to help her climb out of poverty. Renee Kvasnik is a retired photographer from St. Paul who has supported both parties.
The common denominator? All three said this week that if Donald Trump is on the presidential ballot next year, they would vote for him.
“I like that Trump speaks his mind,” Kvasnik said during a stop at the state Republican Party’s booth at the Minnesota State Fair. “I don’t always agree with it, but that’s OK.”
It’s still hard to locate any support among Minnesota’s Republican establishment for the celebrity tycoon’s surging, unpredictable candidacy.
But go to the State Fair and you’ll quickly understand why Trump has for weeks now inhabited the front-runner spot over more than a dozen GOP governors, senators and other party veterans vying for the nomination.
Interviews with visitors to the GOP booth turned up support for Trump that spans political and demographic divides. Most Trump fans cited reasons that had little to do with his bold pronouncements on issues like immigration and trade policy, and more to do with his confrontational style and TV-minted fame.
“He don’t take any guff from anybody,” said Paul, who despite years of voting exclusively for Republicans said he doesn’t have a second choice in the 17-person Republican field. “He can do this. If he keeps on the trail he is on, he can definitely do this.”
More than one Trump supporter mentioned they were faithful viewers of his NBC reality shows, “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.” Between his knack for successful self-promotion and his confrontational approach to politics, it’s tempting to draw parallels between Trump and another celebrity candidate who found favor with Minnesotans — former Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“You’re always looking for the new innovations that a candidate uses to get your attention,” said Kvasnik, who in 1999 ran for St. Paul City Council as an independent. “And Trump has certainly figured out how to get attention.”
So much so that some more traditional Republicans pronounced themselves annoyed at the way Trump has vacuumed up the spotlight for weeks now.
“He’s the only one getting any media attention, and you have to see how that counts for something,” said Pat Svacina, a Plymouth retiree who was volunteering at the GOP booth. Charlene Skorjanec, a retired sales rep from White Bear Lake, said Trump is “too full of himself” and said she worries that as president he could do serious damage to U.S. prospects on the international scene.
There were some at the GOP booth who supported other candidates. Robert Yang, a recent University of St. Thomas graduate headed for law school, supports Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for his proposal to implement a flat income tax rate. Roger Hughes, a retired hospital administrator from Golden Valley, called Ohio Gov. John Kasich “the most sensible candidate,” with a proven record of managing a large state.
But those candidates are not winning the GOP booth’s “corn poll.” While nowhere close to scientific, visitors who fill out a survey or buy Republican-branded merchandise at the booth are being given a small cup of corn kernels. They can then distribute the kernels among 17 beer growlers — one for each candidate.
By midweek, Trump was sitting on a healthy lead. The other two non-politicians in the race, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina were second and third. In the middle of the pack were Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the dethroned front-runner, barely made the top half.
Of course, State Fair visitors won’t pick the GOP nominee. Republican primary and caucus voters will, starting next February with the Iowa caucus.
Minnesota’s caucus follows on March 1, and state GOP Chairman Keith Downey said that so far he’s seen no evidence that the Trump campaign has started organizing or building support here among potential convention delegates.
But Downey, who initially was dismissive of Trump’s long-term chances, is starting to change his tune about Trump’s viability.
“This is anecdotal, but my sense is that Trump is garnering a more serious look across the board,” Downey said. “That’s even with our activists who have been loyal to the party for decades.”
Asked if he thinks Trump could end up as the Republican nominee, Downey answered: “Sure.” He said Trump has the potential to win wide support from nonpolitical voters and to bring new people into the Republican fold.
That seems to be the case with Jackson, the two-time Obama voter.
“I’m a person of color, and I’m an impoverished person, so I’m more of a Democrat,” said Jackson, who works in customer service. “But Obamacare sucks. I’m barely making it.”
In Trump, Jackson sees someone who could rebuild American governance from the ground up.
“He could come in and shake up the whole system,” Jackson said. “That’s what he’s known for.”