Republican Scott Jensen darted from one supporter to another as the crowd swelled around his Minnesota State Fair booth on a recent Friday afternoon.
The candidate for governor posed for selfies, shook hands and encouraged each visitor to tell their friends about his campaign.
With a little more than two months left before Election Day, the annual end-of-summer gathering offered contenders a chance to meet thousands of voters each day. For Jensen — who is vying to unseat DFL Gov. Tim Walz this fall and still lags in name recognition — the interactions were critical.
“The State Fair is huge,” Jensen told MPR News during a brief pause from conversations with fairgoers. ”This is how we're going to change hearts and minds and change Minnesota. It's the only way we can do it. You cannot run against the amount of money that Tim Walz has, without changing hearts and minds. It's the only way we win.”
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Jensen spent at least a few hours each day talking to voters at his booth near the butterfly house as part of that effort. Supporters stopped by to offer a prayer or air their frustrations about the incumbent. Others wished Jensen well and promised him their votes.
“Thank you, sir. I wish you luck. We need you,” a man said as he greeted Jensen.
“We're in this together. Nobody on the sidelines,” Jensen replied. “You remember what Teddy Roosevelt said? ‘(You’ve) got to get out of the spectator seats.’”
Justin Bye, a 27-year-old business executive from Lindstrom, said he plans to vote for Jensen in November. Bye said Jensen could better address crime in the Twin Cities and inflation around the state. And he took issue with the way the governor handled COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“Shutting down our businesses took a huge impact on what our state offers, whether it's industrial, whether it's agricultural, we took a large hit to that,” Bye said. “So that leaves, I think, a lot of sour taste on people's tongues.”
Jensen heard similar feedback from dozens of people who stopped to chat with him each day at the fair, he said. Those interactions spurred new ideas and added a new spark to the campaign.
“Well, obviously, there's a lot of energy,” Jensen said. “And I guess that's a little bit like dopamine. I mean, it gives you a lot of energy. It drives your adrenaline level up, but it also drives my desire to be the candidate that Minnesotans want me to be.”
On the same day, Walz made the rounds at the fair between the DNR building, his campaign booth and TV stations for interviews.
“I’m three Mountain Dews in today –— alright — and it's noon,” Walz told staff and passersby as he walked toward the DNR building. “We're just getting started.”
Walz’s fair appearances tended to be more sporadic, with occasional stops at his campaign booth interspersed with ceremonies, news conferences and walks around the fairgrounds.
Along the way, some supporters stopped the governor to voice their support for how he guided the state through the COVID-19 pandemic or to thank him for his work in office.
After a TV interview, Walz thanked a man wearing an Army hat for his service. The man hugged the governor and promised him his vote.
“I hope you hear this a lot: I’m going to vote for you this fall,” he said.
George Bergquist said he too plans to vote for Walz in November. The retiree from Princeton said the Walz administration has listened to a variety of perspectives on the pandemic and other issues. And they’ve managed through the crises as well as can be expected, he said.
“Even today between four and six people a day die in Minnesota from the coronavirus, and I think he took a very thoughtful approach to that,” Bergquist said. “It was based on science — and while it didn't satisfy everyone — I think it tried to. They tried to find an approach that saved people's lives.”
But opposition to the governor, especially on his handling of the pandemic, was on display day after day, too. Overhead, a plane carried a banner that read “Walz failed.” And workers at a separate booth at the fair handed out anti-Walz backpacks, hats and shirts.
“I think there's a lot of people that are upset,” said Jesse Smith, 24, as he helped visitors spin a wheel pinpointing areas where voters disagreed with the administration’s policies. “So I think we're seeing a lot of good energy going on here.”
Smith ran the Action 4 Liberty booth and said he planned to spend all 12 days at the Fair building up opposition to the governor’s reelection bid.
Walz has defended his efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and said his steps during the pandemic, as well as in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, show that he can lead through difficult situations.
“I think we make a pretty strong case that we had a steady hand in pretty unsteady times.” Walz told MPR News. “I do think the good part about this is this is really about character now. People are seeing how you respond to things. And you're hearing people out here at the Fair say, ‘I might not have agreed with you but I think you're trying to do the right thing.’ And that's a pretty high compliment from folks.”
In the shadow of the Walz-Jensen matchup are a number of third party candidates.
One of them is Hugh McTavish of the Independence-Alliance Party who has a campaign booth next to the Big Fat Bacon stand.
“I'm hearing from a lot of folks that they're not happy with Walz or Jensen,” McTavish said as he promoted his plan to invite more citizen participation at the Capitol. “That they're not real thrilled with Walz, but that Jensen is unacceptable, because his views on abortion and gun control and other issues.”