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Politicians prepare for Minnesota State Fair

The answer is yes: There will be a life-size Donald Trump cutout at the Republican Party of Minnesota’s booth when the Minnesota State Fair opens Aug. 25.

The GOP presidential nominee’s two-dimensional presence, joining Ronald Reagan’s and Abraham Lincoln’s, is among the few completely new features that politically minded individuals and groups are preparing in the countdown to the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

“It’s the launch of the political season for most Minnesotans,” said Keith Downey, chair of the state Republican Party and a former state representative. Volunteers at the GOP booth will again greet visitors with a “Solution Center” rolled out last year: banners, placards and web links showing off platform planks and proposed legislation to show, he said, that “we’re the party of solutions.”

At last year’s State Fair, volunteer Ben Schwanke handed out free balloons in front of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s booth. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

At last year’s State Fair, volunteer Ben Schwanke handed out free balloons in front of the Republican Party of Minnesota’s booth. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Preparation requires “quite an organized effort,” Downey said, including scheduling a corps of eight to 10 volunteers to staff the booth on each of the Fair’s 12 days. The eight congressional districts each take a day, with the remainder covered by College Republicans and others.

There will be no non-judicial statewide offices on the general election ballots — an unusual dearth at that level. But with the entire state legislature and the state’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives up for election in November, candidates will not be in short supply at the Republicans’ booth, or at the DFL Party booth three blocks away.

Booths are the only places candidates can do their politicking, under State Fair rules upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1981 decision. Political parties register and apply for licenses just as other kinds of vendors do, according to Jim Sinclair, deputy general manager at the Fair. Licensed activities — including, for politicians and political groups, handing out literature and buttons — are restricted to the booth area.

“We do feel it is our obligation to provide the Fair guests with exposure to candidates running for political office,” Sinclair said.

Minor parties are Fair regulars too, with smaller booths in more out-of-the-way locations. This year, they include the Green Party of Minnesota in the upper grandstand, and elsewhere the Constitution, Independence and Libertarian parties, and the state’s Taxpayers League.

Marty Seifert, then a Republican state representative and House minority leader, learned what a booth can and can’t do in 2009 when he was the only office-seeker with his own booth.

The booth, Seifert said, brought great general visibility. But with it came the task of coordinating volunteers to staff it, and he found that very few among the passers-by were likely to participate in the caucuses half a year later, where support would be key for Seifert’s 2010 (ultimately unsuccessful) gubernatorial effort.

Maybe one person out of 120 was a caucus-goer, Seifert figures. Restrict that to Republicans, and it might be 1 out of 240.

“It’s like hunting for a hemp seed,” he said.

Major party booths can get big crowds, he said, but many who gravitate there are already party regulars. “Your swing voters and independents? That’s probably the last thing they’re [at the Fair] for,” Seifert said.

Booths, like the DFL’s pictured last year, are the only places candidates can do their politicking at the State Fair. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Booths, like the DFL’s pictured last year, are the only places candidates can do their politicking at the State Fair. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

This year the state’s two U.S. senators are the only politicians with individual booths.

“The State Fair is one of Sen. [Al] Franken’s favorite times of the year,” said Franken spokesman Ed Shelleby by email. “While he loves traveling around Minnesota to talk with constituents, the Fair is the one time when Minnesota comes to him.”

Candidate booths sometimes take off. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch still has a signature she got as a girl from Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, who operated a popular flavored milk booth.

Seifert and former state Sen. Don Betzold recalled crowds at Jesse Ventura’s candidate booth in 1998 as an early indicator his gubernatorial campaign was on fire. “People treated him like a rock star,” Betzold said. “Up until that point he was a joke.”

Betzold said the popularity of party booths can predict a November outcome, such as in 2010 when paltry crowds foretold a wave against DFL incumbents that cost him his seat and swept Republicans into power.

Another staple: The state Senate and House booths in the Education Building, where lawmakers take shifts to greet voters, who also take opinion polls on current legislative issues. And nearby at the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, the seed art exhibit usually has a bumper crop of politically themed artworks. Regular ribbon-winner Mark Dahlager said he is readying a Trump-themed entry.

But for now, the Republican Party booth is quiet, with 2015 signage as it was left 11 months ago. On one side, sharing a middle name with the Grand Old Party, is the venerable Ye Old Mill ride. On the other, WCCO-AM radio’s booth, with lumber stacked in front, presumably in preparation for temporary improvements. Two doors down, murmuring voices come from behind the door of Sweet Martha’s Cookies.

Downey’s annual appetite for Sweet Martha’s is whet already as he recalls one beloved State Fair routine: “Everybody who has an overflowing jumbo tub of cookies says, ‘Here, have one.’”


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