P

eople don't come to the Minnesota State Fair for politics. But politics comes for them.

Partisan booths are sandwiched between sandwiches. Crop artists shape seeds into abortion-rights messages. Around the corner on Judson Avenue, fairgoers might find a member of Congress or candidate for governor shaking sticky hands. Or milking a cow.

Conventional wisdom in Minnesota politics goes: with Election Day nearly two months away, the Great Minnesota Get-Together is when voters start tuning in to what candidates have been peddling for months. And with Minnesota's statewide offices, congressional and legislative seats on the November ballot, politicians are out en masse, trying to compete with Pronto Pups, butter sculptures and giant pigs for fairgoers' attention.

The Star Tribune spent one day looking for all things politics at the fair. Here's what we found.

On the morning of Aug. 26, Radja Lohse, a volunteer at the Republican booth at the State Fair, placed the American flag in its holder and said, “There, now we are open!”
On the morning of Aug. 26, Radja Lohse, a volunteer at the Republican booth at the State Fair, placed the American flag in its holder and said, “There, now we are open!”

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

9 a.m.

Radja Lohse hoisted the American flag outside the Minnesota Republican Party booth, where supporters wandered through rows of "Not My Governor" ballcaps and thin blue line T-shirts indicating police solidarity. It's the East Bethel retiree's third year volunteering there, and under his red GOP vest he wore a "Scott Jensen for governor" shirt. He said he loves the family physician who spent one term in the Minnesota Senate.

Jensen has blasted repeat investigations of his medical license during the pandemic, as he suggested COVID-19 case numbers are inflated, called for "civil disobedience" on policies and promoted ivermectin. For Lohse, that was a selling point. "It encourages me to see someone who will stand up for their principles," he said.

On Aug. 26, an airplane towed a banner around the State Fair proclaiming “Walz Failed, Time For a Change,” which was paid for by Freedom Club.
On Aug. 26, an airplane towed a banner around the State Fair proclaiming “Walz Failed, Time For a Change,” which was paid for by Freedom Club.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

9:30 a.m.

Lisa DeKrey flashed a thumbs-up to Gov. Tim Walz's campaign booth volunteers, drawing a question from her conservative mother. Walz is "approachable and so commonsense" and has done a good job leading the state through the pandemic, said DeKrey, of Alexandria. But she said her mom, who voted for Walz four years ago, is primarily concerned with limiting abortion and isn't backing him this time.

Repeat visits to the fair prompted a couple of political conversations for the family. When her 10-year-old son spotted the "WALZ FAILED" sky banner that has been circling the fairgrounds, they discussed the word "failed" and their family's values. "It's fun that the fair can bring so many opinion and ideals together, and hopefully in a positive, forward-focused way," DeKrey said.

Volunteer Carol Grabowski took a photo of Pam Vandersluis of Buffalo, Minn., along with her two daughters Jordan, 12, and Lily, 15, at a Biden-Harris display at the DFL booth at the State Fair on Aug. 26.
Volunteer Carol Grabowski took a photo of Pam Vandersluis of Buffalo, Minn., along with her two daughters Jordan, 12, and Lily, 15, at a Biden-Harris display at the DFL booth at the State Fair on Aug. 26.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

10 a.m.

There stood Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, stock-still and life-sized in front of the Oval Office. Suddenly, they were crowded by the VanderSluis family. Twelve-year-old Jordan popped her head between the country's leaders, grinning widely. They were among the DFL supporters swinging by their party's stand to pose for a picture with the presidential cutouts and participate in the bean poll that asks, "Why are you voting in '22?"

Pam VanderSluis, of Buffalo, was among the overwhelming majority of bean-casters who picked abortion access in the early days of the fair. "It's going to help Democrats," she said of momentum since Roe v. Wade was overturned. "Everyone wants rights for women — well, most people — and as a mother of two daughters, that's the most important thing to me right now."

Tigist Opheim wore a Minnesota House of Representatives hat at the House display in the State Fair’s Education Building. She visited the exhibit on Aug. 26 with her husband, Tom, left, and their two children, Tinsae, 14, and Tommy, 10.
Tigist Opheim wore a Minnesota House of Representatives hat at the House display in the State Fair’s Education Building. She visited the exhibit on Aug. 26 with her husband, Tom, left, and their two children, Tinsae, 14, and Tommy, 10.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

10:30 a.m.

Next to a robotics demonstration and kids' award-winning artwork, state House and Senate members gauged public opinion on potential bills. But poll questions about boater permits, taxation of Social Security benefits or $10,000 police bonuses were not what brought Duluth resident Tigist Opheim to the legislative booths. Her light-hearted decision to don a paper crown of the State Capitol belied a serious mission. Amid a day at the fair with her family, here was a chance to talk directly to legislators about killings of Amhara people in Ethiopia. She hopes lawmakers do something — anything — to help.

Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish, left, talked with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Aug. 26, while Ellison ate one of the Farmers Union specialties, aronia berry meringue pie.
Minnesota Farmers Union President Gary Wertish, left, talked with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Aug. 26, while Ellison ate one of the Farmers Union specialties, aronia berry meringue pie.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

11:15 a.m.

Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison scarfed an aronia meringue mini pie in front of the Farmers Union Coffee Shop, a treat he would later declare his favorite fair food during an interview on the Star Tribune's stage. As he held the tart purple pie, he chatted with Farmers Union President Gary Wertish and passersby about housing and landlord-tenant issues. He was heading to Northfield later that day, where his office has been working with a mobile home park that he said was imposing "draconian" requirements on tenants.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz greeted fairgoers on Aug. 26.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz greeted fairgoers on Aug. 26.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

11:45 a.m.

When you are the governor, moving through the State Fair is not a quick task. Babies need to be cooed at. Hands must be shook. Veterans thanked. Someone might approach you with a question, asking you to answer as they record a video.

But Walz made it from the unveiling of the Children's Outdoor Bill of Rights at the Department of Natural Resources stage to a KSTP interview, where he was pressed on why he declined a debate at the fair. "There are 50 governors in America. One has held a general election debate, and that's me," he said, adding that he wants to debate, but "Debating about a debate is not solving problems."

U.S. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith was all smiles after visiting this year’s Princes Kay of the Milky Way, Rachel Rynda, and new butter carver Gerry Kulzer on Aug. 26.
U.S. Democratic Sen. Tina Smith was all smiles after visiting this year’s Princes Kay of the Milky Way, Rachel Rynda, and new butter carver Gerry Kulzer on Aug. 26.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

1:40 p.m.

A crowd was watching Princess Kay of the Milky Way have her likeness carved into a block of butter. All of a sudden, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith was in the cold glass case with the sculptor and the dairy princess. Smith posed for a picture and spoke briefly with farmers about their needs in Congress. As she raced out of the Dairy Building — she had to stop by the Turkey to Go booth and speak at the 4-H Beef Championship — Ross Widmoyer, of Edina, got in a quick handshake.

"It's part of the fair, politics," he said of happening across a U.S. senator as his sons slurped a sundae and malt.

Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen milked a dairy cow by hand outside the Moo Booth of the Cattle Barn during a State Fair contest on Aug. 26.
Republican candidate for governor Scott Jensen milked a dairy cow by hand outside the Moo Booth of the Cattle Barn during a State Fair contest on Aug. 26.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

2:30 p.m.

It was an altogether different governor's race. Scott Jensen vs. Independence-Alliance Party candidate Hugh McTavish in the ultimate State Fair showdown: the Agrilympics. In this case, the gloves came on (a sanitary requirement) as the two perched on stools beside their bovines to see who would win the "Expert Cowhand" title in a milking race. A crowd gathered for the drama. After just 30 seconds, the results were in. McTavish bested Jensen, 30 milliliters to 10.

Ryan Wilson, Republican candidate for state auditor, walked with his five kids at the Little Farm Hands display at the State Fair on Aug. 26.
Ryan Wilson, Republican candidate for state auditor, walked with his five kids at the Little Farm Hands display at the State Fair on Aug. 26.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

3 p.m.

After hours at his booth fielding questions like "What is an auditor? What does the auditor do?" and "We have an auditor?" Ryan Wilson was taking a little break, if you could call it that. The GOP candidate for state auditor was racing through the Little Farmhands exhibit with his five children. As they trooped through the chicken coop, he reflected on the political reach of the fair. On just the first day, he estimated more than 1,500 people took a bag from his booth.

DFL State Auditor Julie Blaha talked to Ross Elfline on Aug. 26 at the crop art display in the Agriculture Building at the State Fair. Blaha has an entry there.
DFL State Auditor Julie Blaha talked to Ross Elfline on Aug. 26 at the crop art display in the Agriculture Building at the State Fair. Blaha has an entry there.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

3:30 p.m.

At the other end of Underwood Street, Wilson's competitor, incumbent Democrat Julie Blaha, was showing off her handiwork. The proud crop artist had two submissions on the wall in the Agriculture Building. "This counter knows her beans," one stated. The other was a celebration of all things on a stick. But hers were not the most political works in a lineup featuring commentary on critical race theory, abortion rights, Scott Jensen and the legalization of THC edibles.

Jim Schultz, Republican candidate for state attorney general, waved as someone called his name while he talked to folks at the State Fair on Aug. 26.
Jim Schultz, Republican candidate for state attorney general, waved as someone called his name while he talked to folks at the State Fair on Aug. 26.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

4 p.m.

Republican attorney general candidate Jim Schultz did not come to the fair with a schedule. He was there to roam, meet people and perhaps grab some food. He's partial to a deep fried Oreo or Snickers, adding with a laugh, "I have very unrefined taste."

He worked his way down a line of people plopped on benches in front of Joe Soucheray's Garage Logic stage. Ellison's approach to policing is "incredibly reckless," he told one couple, and said while some of the office's consumer protection work is merited, "sometimes it's kind of business harassment."