Tom Weiler has never run for office before, but the Republican congressional candidate knows enough about politics to plan to spend every day at the Minnesota State Fair.
Weiler had a 20-year career as a submariner before illness prompted him to retire from the U.S. Navy and challenge Rep. Dean Phillips to represent the 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses many of Minneapolis’s north, south and west suburbs.
Weiler’s brother John Weiler manned a cardboard submarine at the entrance of the fair’s Minnesota Republican Party headquarters, eager to promote the candidate to curious passersby. Weiler’s father was also there to help.
Lagging behind Phillips in raising political cash, Weiler joked that his relatives were the only campaign staffers he could afford. He said he hoped to gain both name recognition and a boost to his fundraising by working the fair.
“A lot of people will hopefully go home and look at my website and know more about me,” Weiler said.
While most are attracted to the State Fair by the rides, food, music and opportunities to people watch, for the state’s elected officials, politicking at the fair is a tradition they dare not break.
“Slighting the fair is one of the best ways to make enemies of Minnesotans,” said University of Minnesota political science professor Tim Lindberg.
That may be a reason why Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith make time go to the fair, even though they are not up for re-election this year.
“The State Fair is one of my favorite times of the year,” Smith said. “For elected officials, the fair is an opportunity to see people from all over the state in one place and hear about the issues that matter to them.”
Klobuchar said “for years I have never missed the fair.”
“From the excitement at the gates on opening day to checking out the butter carving, I always look forward to having good conversations at the Great Minnesota Get-Together,” the senator said.
While Smith and Klobuchar do not have to worry about an impending election, the governorship as well as all statewide offices, all state House and Senate seats as well as all seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be on the ballot in November. So, this year’s fair, which ends Sept. 5, is an especially big political event.
Phillips missed the first few days of the fair because he attended his sister’s wedding in Wyoming. But he plans to make up for that omission.
“Professionally, there’s no better place to meet people,” Phillips said.
Many Democratic candidates make use of the DFL headquarters at the fair, which like its GOP counterpart sells or gives away a variety of political paraphernalia. A big seller for the DFL is a tee-shirt emblazoned with Roe, Roe, Roe your Vote. Meanwhile a popular item at the GOP headquarters is a free carboard fan that says “Walz failed.”
But Phillips has his own booth, which is giving away packets of wildflower seeds that say “Let’s Grow Together American,” a slogan aimed to shore up the lawmaker’s centrist-themed campaign.
Phillips said he has attended the state fair for 52 years and is proud of a photo of him taken at his first one that shows a shaggy haired blond child gleefully riding a tractor.
He’s the only U.S. House candidate with a booth at the fair and says that’s a big undertaking because it has to be staffed every day with volunteers.
But he said it is worth it because “The Great Minnesota Get Together” celebrates something that is happening too rarely in the nation.
“It’s a beautiful stew of humanity” Phillips said.
Restriction on campaigning
Among the most visible politicians at the fair are Gov. Tim Walz and his Republican opponent, Scott Jensen, who spends every afternoon either at GOP headquarters or his own booth near the center of the fair.
Jensen’s meeting and greeting of voters, however, is interrupted every day at 2 p.m. by the passing of a parade dangerously close to his booth, with it marching bands drowning out his salutations.
Jensen campaign spokesman Joel Hanson said the candidate’s exposure at the fair grows exponentially through all the selfies he posed for with potential voters who post the photographs on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other social media.
“You don’t get this anywhere else,” Hanson said the opportunity to boost Jensen’s candidacy.
But it’s not only Minnesota politicians who have sought support at the fair. One of the most significant political events at the fair occurred on Sept. 2, 1901, when then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt pitched his foreign policy in a speech in which he uttered for the first time that the United States should “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
The fair is held at an opportune time in the political cycle, said the University of Minnesota’s Lindberg, coming after the primaries and at the “early ramping up for the fall elections.”
Still, it’s not a political free-for-all. Candidates at the fair are corralled like some of the livestock on exhibition.
The Minnesota State Agricultural Society, which governs the fair, restricts activities of politicians, as well as vendors, to “an assigned fixed location or licensed commercial booth space.” Candidates have interpreted that to mean they have to be no more than arms-length from their political booths. So last Friday, Kim Crockett, the Republican candidate for secretary of state was careful to stay in the blazing sun right outside the entrance of GOP headquarters to meet as many of those passing by as possible.
Phillips has more liberal definition of the statute, and said it merely bans solicitation outside a political booth. “I walk the fair,” he said.
Unlike GOP headquarters, which is enclosed and features a shady, leafy patio at the rear, the DFL headquarters is an open pavilion that allows fairgoers to see who’s in attendance. About a dozen lined up to speak with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison who greeted each one effusively.
Some DFL candidates had their own small booths inside party headquarters, including state representative Jennifer Schultz, who is trying to unseat Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th.
Although that northern district is far from the fair, Schultz said she has met a number of potential voters and others, who live in the Twin Cities area, but have cabins in the 8th and are eager to meet her.
“I love to get a chance to talk to people,” Schultz said.
And it’s not only the major parties that have a presence at the fair. The Libertarian Party has a booth as does the Independence Party.
Philip Fuehrer, Independence Party state chair, said it’s all about “the visibility.”
“It lets folks know we are still here,” Fuehrer said. “It allows us to show folks there’s another choice out there.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jennifer Schultz’s name. The story has been updated.