CARROLL, IOWA – In this deep red county of western Iowa, which President Donald Trump won by 30 points, Sen. Amy Klobuchar stopped at a crowded cafe recently to stress that she can talk about issues like guns and immigration in practical, common-sense terms that should be appealing to voters in the Midwest.
“I have won in Republican districts. A lot,” she said. “Again and again and again.”
But six months ahead of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, that centrist message of electability at the heart of Klobuchar’s long-shot presidential bid has yet to pay off in the polls, adding urgency to her pleas to a Democratic base that has lurched markedly to the left.
With much ground to make up, and the days of summer growing shorter, Klobuchar’s path to the party’s nomination is dotted with Iowa road signs, each town a stop in a long game to outlast a field of bigger names with more fulsome campaign coffers.
Over four days in early August, in a state crucial to her presidential hopes, Klobuchar courted Iowa Democrats in cafes and private homes, union halls and farms, at fundraising dinners and the Iowa State Fair. She asked them to look past her low poll numbers and support a fellow Midwesterner as their best hope against Trump in 2020.
“I think it is pretty important, Iowa, to have a candidate from the Midwest,” Klobuchar told hundreds at the State Fair in Des Moines. “And someone that just doesn’t have a bunch of policies written down on a piece of paper but has a track record of looking out for rural America.”
Democratic front-runners, second-stringers and also-rans all worked Iowa the same week. Rivals like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders drew bigger crowds as they made more ambitious promises like Medicare for All and free college.
“I know maybe I haven’t had a viral moment, all right?” Klobuchar said during a visit to the fair, where she passed the six-month mark of her campaign.
Following her trail, it was not hard to find Democratic caucusgoers who view the Minnesota senator favorably. Many remain undecided, and Klobuchar isn’t often the first choice of those who have made a pick. Supporters of Warren, Sanders and Joe Biden were easier to find.
Needing a strong finish in the Feb. 3 caucuses, Klobuchar’s campaign has about 40 paid employees in Iowa. “I think she has the potential to surprise people here,” said Dave Nagle, a former Democratic congressman from Waterloo. He’s neutral, but came to a Klobuchar house party in Oelwein.
Iowa insiders seem to see Klobuchar somewhere between sixth and eighth place right now. Will that be good enough?
“There are, at most, five tickets out of Iowa,” said Peter Leo, the Democratic chairman of Carroll County.
‘Too much of the status quo’
At Clear Lake’s Democratic Wing Ding two nights later, Klobuchar and almost every other candidate spoke for four minutes each to hundreds of Democrats sitting on folding chairs, paper plates heaped with fried chicken wings and pulled pork balanced on their laps.
“It’s great to be back at the Wing Ding,” Klobuchar said, reminding these north Iowans she first spoke here in 2014.
She talked issues: the cost of child care, the need for good schools, the struggles of rural hospitals, the low number of mental health beds in Iowa. Climate change, safeguarding elections, affordable housing and aging infrastructure are also frequent topics. She has often pitched her plan to increase federal taxes on corporate profits and wealthy trust funds.
“I like how she stands up for the Midwest. She’s a good person,” said Zach Zellweger, who lives in Clarion and works with AmeriCorps volunteers teaching early childhood literacy. But the 32-year-old is backing Warren. He wants “something outside the establishment. I think we’ve had too much of the status quo for too long.”
Chasing a breakthrough
The day Klobuchar campaigned for eight hours at the Iowa State Fair, journalist and poll cruncher Nate Silver asked on Twitter if there’s “another relatively moderate candidate” the party establishment could coalesce behind if Biden fades.
“Klobuchar is the most plausible but her performance has been meh so far,” Silver wrote.
“We always knew I would be an underdog,” Klobuchar said in an interview. “There are so many people, so it’s harder to get your message through.”
At the fair, Klobuchar recalled Iowa’s history of elevating lesser known Democrats. “Jimmy Carter — no one knew who he was,” she said.
Klobuchar has garnered enough support to make the Democratic debates this fall. With a smaller group expected on stage, her advisers and supporters see the possibility the race’s dynamics could shift.
“You don’t want to be the lead guy right now. The lead guy doesn’t win,” said Andy McGuire, a Des Moines doctor, prominent Democrat and Klobuchar’s Iowa chairwoman. “We still talk about President Howard Dean, or President [Richard] Gephardt” — two past Democratic contenders whom Iowa elevated as front-runners, then relegated to also-rans.
Hummingbirds swarmed a feeder at the front of Dave and Mary Jensen’s house near Iowa Falls. Mary Jensen sat on the front porch, drinking coffee and waiting for the presidential candidate to visit.
Dave is retired, but several relatives farm corn and soybeans here and on adjoining land. Mary, a retired community college teacher, plans to caucus for Klobuchar.
“Personally, I’m probably way over here,” Jensen said, stretching her arm far to her own left. She pulls it back closer to herself and says: “But this is what I think we can do now. And I like that. That’s Midwestern problem-solving. Pragmatic.”
Jensen, 77, said younger friends and relatives want more sweeping change.
“And they may be right. I don’t know for sure. I don’t want to be the old cautious person,” she said. Her top priority is not a specific policy: “I want a woman president before I die.”
Klobuchar arrived and took a quick tour. A bit later, around the kitchen table, she chatted with a small group of locals, mostly farmers. “What’s going on with soybeans and corn and what’s happening with these tariffs and your farm and everyone in this area?” she asked between bites of coffee cake.
Several worried that lost soybean markets won’t come back from Trump’s trade war with China. Tim Broer, one of several in the room who got federal payments to offset trade losses, criticized those payments.
“It isn’t fair that we’re getting a rebate to help, but the people that shop at Walmart, they’re not going to get a rebate,” said Broer, who’s undecided.
Climate change came up, and a weedier discussion of conservation and drainage. In front of farmers and rural audiences, Klobuchar often mentions her work on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The last question came from a 9-year-old girl.
“Are you going to be nicer?” Grace Bingham asked meekly, tears in her eyes.
“She was very tired and a little scared but she was clear that she wanted to ask the question,” Grace’s great aunt, Pat Phipps, said later.
“I bet it’s hard to watch the president, right?” Klobuchar said. “Aw, Grace. It’s hard every day, to hear about it. But we’ve had presidents before that were really nice. Remember President [Barack] Obama?”
The meeting broke. Klobuchar led Grace into a smaller room, set her on her lap and whispered to her for a few minutes.
Klobuchar is trying to convince Democrats, in Iowa and nationwide, that she can win back voters who went for Trump in Midwestern swing states. A general election Democrat who carries Clinton’s 2016 states plus Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and one more — say Pennsylvania, Ohio or Indiana — would beat Trump.
“I won 42 of the counties that Donald Trump won” in Minnesota, when she ran for re-election last year, Klobuchar said at the sandwich shop in Carroll. Still, the 51 total counties Klobuchar carried in 2018 was down from her 2012 high point, when she carried 85 of 87.
And whatever Iowa’s cultural affinities with Minnesota, the Hawkeye State has never been a given for political aspirants from north of the state line: Just ask Minnesota Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, whose presidential campaigns crashed in Iowa.
Curt Wiederin came to see Klobuchar wearing his “Trump 2020: Keep America Great” baseball cap. Before the speech, the semi driver said there’s “no chance in hell” he’d support a Democrat. Hearing Klobuchar didn’t change his mind.
“I didn’t like that she called Trump’s tax bill a fiasco,” Wiederin said. “It created jobs and I gained money I need for my family. How is that a fiasco?”
Klobuchar’s attacks on Trump have grown sharper and more frequent. “He governs from fear, he makes people afraid,” she said in Des Moines. She faults him for dishonesty, enumerates promises he hasn’t kept and makes fun of his hair.
Wrapping up in Carroll, Klobuchar asked Democrats in this Republican county to make her their voice in the national political debate.
“What unites us as a country is so much bigger than what divides us,” Klobuchar said. “I know it doesn’t feel that way. But it’s really true. What unites us is stronger. Right?”