It shows up in crop art. In Make American Great Again hats or Blue Wave buttons. Then there’s the bounty of politicians — posing with their pork chops on a stick, kicking off 4-H events or manning campaign booths.
Minnesotans visit the State Fair for their greasy food of choice or a favorite grandstand performance. But politics are always woven into the spectacle of the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Election Day 2020 is more than a year away, but DFL and GOP Party staff both said their booths are on track for record sales. At the Democrats’ stand, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is leading the presidential “bean ballot,” while a Republican survey shows immigration and border security to be top concerns of their visitors.
Clashes have inevitably erupted. So far: political partisans have been seen shouting obscenities at each other; one group unfurled a massive Trump 2020 banner in middle of the street by the DFL stand; others poured drinks on GOP merchandise; and, in perhaps the most serious confrontation, Republicans accused Democrats of “fostering” the harassment — including an alleged sexual assault — of volunteers at their booth Friday night.
The DFL responded by condemning any form of physical or sexual assault.
But for the most part, the fair presents an opportunity for politicians and Minnesotans to focus on things that bring people together, such as marveling at gastronomic oddities.
Matt Berg of Oakdale had just tried some sconuts (a scone-doughnut hybrid) at the French Meadow Bakery stand when he saw the Republican Party booth across the street and decided to peruse the clothing. He liked a “Reagan Bush” shirt and snapped a photo in front of the “Trump Pence 2020” sign. But politics are not typically a part of his fair-going experience, Berg said. In fact, he’d rather have people sideline those disagreements when they head to the annual event.
“What do they call it? The Great Minnesota Get-Together?” he said. “So why not? Why not leave all that stuff at home for a couple of weeks, come out here and eat horrible food, look at all the trade booths, and have fun?”
For Anna Check of Eden Prairie, politics is part of the fun. The soon-to-be freshman at the University of St. Thomas plans to major in political science and said she grew up stopping by political booths at the fair. She dragged a few friends to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s booth, where volunteers for the Minnesota Democrat and presidential candidate were handing out green buttons and blowing bubbles as people streamed by on their way to the Dairy Building or French fry stand.
Check planned to wear a Klobuchar button and said she doesn’t mind if that prompts comments or confrontation. She was at the fair the day before and said she was “cussed out” by a few supporters of President Donald Trump who were in the crowd while Klobuchar was giving a speech.
Klobuchar is one of many politicians using the fair to connect with voters en masse. Fellow presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont, spoke to a crowd of hundreds that gathered at the Minnesota Public Radio booth Saturday. Former Minnesota Republican Rep. Jason Lewis chose the opening day of the fair to launch his bid against Minnesota Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith.
Smith also got in some fair time. She posted a GIF of herself riding the Giant Slide. She later recommended the experience to those who stopped to listen to her WCCO Radio interview, and to a much larger audience watching the 4-H Beef Championship at the Lee & Rose Warner Coliseum.
Her one-minute speech at the Coliseum — where she was an opener for the cow competition — drew some whoops and polite applause. The response was on par with what the champion of the cow/calf competition received.
In the Education Building, there were one-on-one interactions between politicians and constituents at the Minnesota House and Senate booths. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, was on duty Friday afternoon and said a couple of topics he heard about were gun regulations and copper-nickel mining. He said people on both sides of the issues approached him.
Bakk, a rural Democrat who has expressed concerns about new gun restrictions in Minnesota, said he told those who asked about gun control that he doesn’t see a path in the Senate to pass any of the recently proposed DFL gun bills.
In true Minnesotan fashion, many people chose not to talk to the legislators but instead quietly filled out the House and Senate’s annual surveys, which gauge public opinion on a variety of topics that lawmakers could take up next session.
Kristen and Jake Holsten, from Stillwater, stopped by with their two young children to take the House and Senate surveys. Kristen, a teacher, said she supports expanding paid family and medical leave. Jake said he owns a number of guns, is a hunter and shoots recreationally, but he wants criminal background checks on all gun buyers.
“We’ve come to a point where, what’s more important: Guns or people’s lives?” he said.
Chuck Freese of Princeton felt particularly strongly about a question on the House ballot asking whether he would support a quarter-cent sales tax increase in the metro area to fund public transit. While he lives outside the seven-county metro area and wouldn’t have to pay the additional tax, he nonetheless opposed the increase and was frustrated by what he sees as a gap in services.
“Public transit doesn’t do squat for me,” he said, adding that people in rural communities need transportation assistance too. He said he would be open to a statewide gas tax — an idea Gov. Tim Walz championed — if it repaired roads in his community.
Minnesota’s Democratic governor, who plans to visit the fair for nine of its 12 days, gave Ohio’s Republican Gov. Mike DeWine a mini-tour last week. Walz showed off the butter sculptures and raved about the pork chop on a stick. Some people pointed out Walz to their families or stopped him for a selfie or to ask a question.
Jerry Jennissen, a dairy farmer from near Brooten, saw the governor in the CHS Miracle of Birth Center and knew he had to take the opportunity to ask about the free-trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Walz said he supports a trade deal after labor protections are worked out, and the two discussed the state dairy program — surrounded by lambs and calves.