Politics pivots from state to national conversation at 2023 Minnesota State Fair

Grassroots groups and state parties are engaging with fairgoers on presidential politics and the 2023 legislative session, producing viral moments along the way, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar posing with a group of shirtless firefighters.

The Action4Liberty booth at the Minnesota State Fair. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

It’s a good thing for Will Beck that he enjoys the Minnesota State Fair.

The director of operations for Action 4 Liberty has been working long hours and engaging with hundreds of fairgoers at the easy-to-spot “Dump Biden”-themed booth the conservative grassroots organization debuted on opening day of the Great Minnesota Get Together last Thursday.

A political cartoon-like caricature of the president of the United States is affixed atop the corrugated white roof and star-spangled booth where Beck and Action 4 Liberty’s small army of staff and volunteers interact with passersby who slow down or stop to talk politics, for better or worse. Some leave happily with a “Dump Biden” fan that Beck has ensured won’t go in short supply during the 12-day fair that runs through Labor Day.

“People don’t necessarily come to the fair for politics,” Beck said during an interview while he was helping manage the booth — which sits across from the Ballpark Café, sidled next to a popular coffee shop along Underwood Street on Monday afternoon. “But politics seems to be on almost everyone’s mind at all times, unfortunately.”

And while the Action 4 Liberty booth has been an anticipated lightning rod for provocative political conversations for the last several years at the state fair (some may remember their “Never Again” and “Dump Walz” booths the previous two years), Beck and organization president Jake Duesenberg decided to pivot to national political branding more than a year before the 2024 presidential election because they recognize it draws a broader base of fairgoers.

The Minnesota State Fair kicked off on Thursday and, after a slow start, saw record attendance on Friday. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

“We’ve received the same balance of negative and positive feedback (with the ‘Dump Biden’ theme) this year as we had in past years. But more people just seem in tune with presidential politics than they do with state politics, even when we had a lot of people visit us the previous two years who were mad about Walz,” Beck said.

On Sunday afternoon, another near-record day for attendance at the fair, dozens of visitors would engage with the A4L booth in one fashion or another every few minutes. Some stopped to have a laugh and playfully take a photo next to a life-size cardboard cutout of President Biden sniffing their neck. Others participated in an informal GOP presidential preference poll (which Donald Trump was winning at that time).

But while the daytime scene at and around the booth seemed jovial, Beck said his staff and volunteers have experienced some less-than-constructive feedback with fairgoers insulted by the Biden critiques and implications that the booth might be implicitly pro-Trump.

“We’ve had a lot of Trump supporters come talk to us here, and we have Trump supporters working the booth. But we aren’t necessarily stumping for any one candidate. Some people like that, and some people don’t,” he said.

That being said, Beck reported that a booth volunteer on Friday evening who brought a Trump cutout to their shift had an interaction with a group of critics, one of whom “ripped the head off” the two-dimensional tribute to the former president and current candidate.

“It was unfortunate,” said Beck, who believes alcohol was likely a factor in the booth visitor’s behavior.

Hottest selling t-shirts, other merch on display at GOP, DFL booths

Elsewhere at the fair over the weekend, both the DFL and Minnesota Republican booths were buzzing with activity.

At the DFL booth, which is a sizeable, open plaza that sits on the corner of Dan Patch Avenue and Cooper Street, a dozen or so visitors milled around to glance at political-themed merchandise, which included a smattering of topic du jour t-shirts and hankies, and even books authored by party stalwarts like Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The Minnesota DFL Party booth at the Minnesota State Fair. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

While the new merch on sale ranged from several state politics themes to tributes to the 46th president, the number one seller, according to DFL Party secretary Ceri Everett, is a “Land of 10,000 Rights” t-shirt.

“There’s only a few left; the Dark Brandon (t-shirt) is selling well too,” Everett said, referencing a meme many Democrats have embraced that features President Biden with glowing red eyes.

T-shirts for sale at the Minnesota DFL booth at the State Fair. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

Over at the Republican booth, the best sellers have been national politics-themed hats, buttons and t-shirts, according Donna Bergstrom, who serves as deputy chair for the Minnesota Republican Party.

“’Try That in a Small Town’ t-shirts have almost sold out already,” Bergstrom said. The phrase pays tribute to a song of the same name released earlier this year by country music superstar Jason Aldean. After the accompanying music video drew equal amounts praise and criticism for its implied social commentary, conservatives and rural Americans have embraced that phrase with virality. Another nationally-themed t-shirt, “Clean up on Aisle 46,” pokes fun at the mess Republicans say Biden has left America with during his first two and a half years in office.

“Some of the younger people, it takes them a minute to get the joke,” Bergstrom said.

T-shirts for sale at the Minnesota GOP booth at the State Fair. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

In terms of the conversation being had at each of the major political parties at the fair, the DFL has been in a celebratory mood that borders on gloating over its accomplishments during the 2022 election and subsequent legislative session.

Booth volunteers cheerfully passed out “GOP Failed” fans to visitors, which DFL Party Chair Ken Martin was promoting via social media posts on opening day of the fair. The phrase is a reference to last year’s “Walz Failed” fans passed out by Republican activists. There are also shirts available for purchase emblazoned with “legalized it,” in reference to the new recreational marijuana legalization law that went into effect earlier this month.

DFL trifecta legislative record still on fairgoers’ minds

The DFL booth also has an informal corn poll allowing visitors to express preference for the issues that matter most to them this summer. Overwhelmingly (and it wasn’t even close) on Sunday afternoon, “defending abortion access” was the top issue on their minds.

While the Minnesota GOP booth didn’t feature any interactive polls, volunteers and elected officials working the space along Carnes Avenue (sandwiched between Ye Olde Mill and WCCO Radio) said that visitors were passionate to express their frustration with the DFL “trifecta”-influenced legislative session that ended in May.

“Yes, people here in Minnesota say they are feeling kind of a ‘Double Whammy’ when it comes to frustration for what they are seeing from the White House, and what they are still processing at the legislature,” said state Sen. Mark Koran, a three-term Republican from North Branch, who was volunteering at the GOP booth and over at the official non-partisan Minnesota Senate booth for three of the fair’s first five days.

Sen. Mark Koran greets fairgoers at the Minnesota GOP booth. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

“But I do think it’s safe to say, people are optimistic. We’re hearing people say, ‘[DFLers] passed so many new laws they didn’t even campaign on,’ and that they are ready to get involved to make sure that doesn’t happen again (after the 2024 election cycle). They are fired up; the key is to take that energy and turn it into action next summer and fall.”

Over at some of the third party booths sprinkled across the fairgrounds, supporters staked their claim on the political conversation. The Grassroots Cannabis Party was engaging with visitors on their next steps in pushing for further marijuana legalization reforms they believe the DFL majority held back on this past spring. And at the Libertarian Party of Minnesota booth, several people stopped by to admire a t-shirt featuring a donkey and elephant that stated in bold letters, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals.”

Politicos on parade across the fairgrounds

Of course, the parade of politicos who made their opening day fair visits included: Gov. Tim Walz eating a bacon-wrapped waffle dog on camera, Democrat U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith posing for photos with shirtless firefighter union members, and DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon and others promoting new voting laws and favorite foods. GOP members of Minnesota’s contingent at the U.S. House of Representatives were also expected to spend time at the fair and the GOP booth in the coming days.

In terms of any national politicians who might descend upon the fairgrounds, so far U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is the lone D.C.-based Biden administration surrogate to visit the Great Minnesota Get Together.

The Libertarian Party of Minnesota booth at the State Fair, featuring a volunteer wearing a “don’t feed the animals” t-shirt, referring to the two major parties. (Hank Long/Alpha News)

“I’ve heard the Minnesota State Fair is the best in the nation,” Vilsack tweeted on Monday. “As the former (Democrat) Governor of Iowa, I can’t confirm it, but I can say how great it was to chat with the farmers and ranchers who call the North Star State home.”

Last summer, federal Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the fair with Klobuchar showing him around.

So far, no Republican primary contenders for president have announced plans on whether they will fly in to visit the fairgrounds. Earlier this month every candidate vying for the GOP nomination for president spent time at the Iowa State Fair. Gov. Walz couldn’t resist the opportunity to try to drown out their fanfare when he visited what he deemed the “second best state fair” in America and spent time attacking Iowa’s new school choice program and stumping for Biden’s re-election.


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.