Minnesota once again is sending one of its own out into the presidential fray, to see whether the public has an appetite for a low-key, Midwestern alternative to the high drama that has marked national politics of late.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's entry into the 2020 race came against a classic, hardy Minnesota backdrop of freezing temperatures, snow-covered crowds at Boom Island in Minneapolis, and plenty of hot chocolate. Oh, and a podium made of ice. It was a distinctive event that gave Klobuchar a not-unforeseen chance to boast of Minnesotans' ability to embrace challenge.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board is not endorsing Klobuchar as the Democratic nominee — it is far too early for that, and much must be weighed — but her entrance in the campaign is welcome. We know this candidate well, going back to the first time she ran for Hennepin County Attorney and eked out a narrow win against Sheryl Ramstad Hvass. It was the last time she would just squeak by in a race.
Her record of double-digit victories and continued popularity make winning in Minnesota look easy. It's not. This is a deeply divided state whose politics have been balanced on a knife's edge for years, regularly swinging between red and blue. This is the state that produced a Senate race decided by 312 votes and that dumped well-established Republican and Democratic candidates to choose a third-party ex-wrestler as governor.
Constituencies here are loud and organized and accustomed to a daunting level of interaction and accountability from candidates. More than one politician has seen a career cut short by an inability to thread the needle between rural and urban voters; gun-rights and gun-control advocates; ardent environmentalists in the Twin Cities and job-hungry Iron Rangers eager to restore timber and mining industries.
Klobuchar has navigated that difficult terrain for years, building broad and durable coalitions that just returned her to the Senate for a third term with an enviable victory margin. It is the result of a decadeslong cultivation of supporters across the state, endless hours spent at bean feeds and backyard fundraisers, of constantly checking in with each of the 87 counties she represents.
In 2018, she again displayed her ability to draw GOP voters, outperforming both DFL Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith in areas that went to President Donald Trump. Steeped in the Midwest, Klobuchar is connected to this region and its concerns in a way that sets her apart from the pack, and could bring greater attention to it than in 2016, when candidate Hillary Clinton made a single campaign stop in Minnesota and skipped Wisconsin entirely.
As a senator, Klobuchar has been the kind of pragmatic, scandal-free, do-the-work kind of leader who has worn well with Minnesotans. She is the antithesis of today's flash-bang political style, with a long record of quietly working with Republicans — who have held the majority for much of her time — to achieve her goals, whether on human trafficking, increased STEM funding, consumer protections, money to rebuild the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge, or other needed legislation and funding. That kind of effort is badly needed in Washington.
Klobuchar is said by some to play "small ball," seeking safe targets and seldom risking her clout for controversy. It's no secret she prefers common ground and progress — even incremental — to stalemate. It's yielded a record of solid legislative achievement and is a tactic well-suited to the Senate, where those who play the long game find their power growing with seniority.
The key question now is whether Klobuchar can make the transition to leader of a nation, one who can offer a clear and compelling vision that galvanizes voters, draws talent near and propels her past a crowded Democratic field. Her more moderate approach may be a tough sell against candidates tapping into the newfound energy radiating from the party's left.
If she survives, she gets to take on one of the most combative, no-holds-barred presidents this country has ever seen. Klobuchar made a good start appealing to many in her party on Sunday, with a speech both specific and wide-ranging that pledged universal health care, background checks on guns, and plans to attack national debt, close tax loopholes for the rich, connect rural America to the internet by 2022, and rejoin the Paris climate accords.
The presidency is a position without easy days or safe decisions. Klobuchar's record as a top prosecutor for the state's largest county and more than a dozen years in the Senate, some on its most powerful committees, is solid preparation. Now she must show she can take on the toughest issues without flinching. The first test came even before her announcement, with a flurry of stories in which several anonymous former aides accused her of mistreating her staff. Klobuchar said, "Yes, I can be tough. And, yes, I can push people," but added that many of her staff had gone on to "do great things."
The pitfalls awaiting presidential candidates are many. We wish Klobuchar's candidacy well and will be watching closely to see how she meets the difficult tests ahead.