DES MOINES – Sen. Amy Klobuchar didn’t have much to say about the White House, or its current occupant, as she mingled Sunday with hundreds of Iowa Democratic activists who will play an outsized role in picking the party’s next presidential candidate.
Instead, Minnesota’s senior senator talked jobs and education and rural broadband. But her mere presence at a Polk County fundraiser — she’s one of the first national politicians to venture into this early presidential state since Trump took office — inevitably set off speculation about Klobuchar’s 2020 aspirations.
Nothing to see here, Klobuchar assured curious reporters. Just a Midwestern Democrat talking to other Midwestern Democrats about heartland policies and priorities, while being trailed by a C-Span camera crew.
“We are the people in the middle of this country,” Klobuchar said. “Those of us in the middle of this country will not be forgotten. We have a voice and people should listen.”
With a 2018 re-election race in Minnesota still in front of her, Klobuchar in an interview sidestepped the presidential question. Still, with a 72 percent home-state approval rating in last month’s Minnesota Poll, she offered herself as a national voice for a political party trying to find a path back to power.
“There are so many people on TV all the time who are from the coasts and I think we need a voice from the Midwest, especially in a state like Iowa where not only did Democrats not fare well in the presidential but also on the local level,” Klobuchar said. “I thought it was important to come down here and talk — not just moaning in the backyard but working toward something.”
The activists who gathered in a downtown Des Moines conference hall Sunday evening welcomed their neighboring senator with handshakes and selfies. But most of their attention was fixed on political targets closer to home, like the upcoming gubernatorial elections, and conservative legislation passed by the new GOP majorities in the state Legislature.
Longtime Democratic activist Rick Smith of Urbandale said the 2016 election has galvanized more first-time activists than he’s ever seen.
“All of a sudden, we have all these new neighborhood groups forming in Polk County,” he said. “I have never seen this much enthusiasm.”
Even as Trump’s presidency rejuvenates activism on the political left, Klobuchar went to Des Moines determined not to give him much space in her speech.
“I could spend my entire speech talking about Donald Trump. There’s certainly enough material,” she said. But “for the rest of the night, let’s don’t even mention his name.”
Instead she sketched out her wish list for America: “We need to be a country that thinks, that makes stuff, that invents things and then exports to the world.”
The mere act of setting foot in Iowa was enough to earn Klobuchar a place on the Des Moines Register’s 2020 Watch list. Barely 100 days into the Trump administration, 2016 Democratic contender Martin O’Malley has already polled in Iowa. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who nearly won last year’s Iowa Caucus, plans a return visit in July.
Klobuchar made several trips to Iowa during the 2016 campaign, stumping for Hillary Clinton.
“I’m not just resisting, I’m insisting on a better way forward,” she said, playing off the anti-Trump “Resist” slogan.
Klobuchar started her Sunday in Iowa at a small political gathering near Cedar Rapids, where she met with several dozen Linn County Democrats.
“It takes a lot of work to make Iowa Democrats feel like they know you,” said Nate Willems, chairman of the local party’s Linn County Phoenix Club. “Until they’ve seen a person from out of state three or four times, they don’t feel like they’ve gotten to know you.”
Klobuchar, he said, has made it onto “the radar screen of a lot of activists.”
A few hours later she was in Des Moines, in front of several hundred people who paid $50 each to see her headline the Polk County Democrats’ Spring Dinner.
“She’s been in Iowa quite a bit. … She was at my house last January,” said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Sean Bagniewski, who also hosted New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — another name in the 2020 mix.
Her Midwestern credentials appealed to organizers, he said. Iowa once elevated another Midwestern Democratic senator, Barack Obama of Illinois, whose 2008 caucus win helped propel him toward the presidency. Bagniewski noted that the flag draped behind Klobuchar’s podium in Polk County on Sunday night was the same one used in President Obama’s last appearance in Iowa.
As 2018 approaches, Klobuchar’s emphasis will increasingly shift to stumping around Minnesota.
Klobuchar was overwhelmingly re-elected in 2012, winning 65 percent of the vote, and so far no high-profile Minnesota Republicans have publicly expressed interest in running against her next year. In last month’s Minnesota Poll, Klobuchar’s approval rating with Republicans was above 50 percent — a statistic that earned a round of applause in Iowa.
“Amy Klobuchar is certainly a pleasant enough politician,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan, previewing the likely GOP message in 2018. “But she has no real record of accomplishments. … In many Republican circles, she’s known as the senator of small things.”
Klobuchar had her name on more than 50 pieces of legislation that passed into law last session, ranking her as one of the more productive lawmakers in the Senate. She frequently highlights bipartisan accomplishments and Minnesota-focused initiatives.
“There’s no one who works harder than she does,” said DFL strategist and Klobuchar adviser Jeff Blodgett.
Amid huge protests and heated speeches from Democrats railing at Trump, Blodgett suggested that the path to the White House might call for more bipartisanship than rhetorical bomb throwing.
“Democrats are looking for someone who can inspire and be positive and present a different picture than the current situation,” he said.