’Twas the night before the election, and all through the state, Minnesotans tuned in the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and saw — their U.S. senator?
“You’re up for re-election tomorrow,” Colbert said to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “Why are you here?”
At that moment, I’d wager, Minnesotans of a certain seasoning nudged their late-night viewing partners and said, “I know why.”
We’ve seen Minnesotans run for president before.
Before I fly into full-blown 2020 presidential prognostication mode, permit a few observations about the political phenomenon that is Amy Klobuchar. She waltzed to a third term in this politically purple state last Tuesday with 60.3 percent of the vote. Only a handful of Democratic senators from the deep-blue northeastern quadrant of the nation’s political map had a better day at the polls.
You’ve heard that Democrats no longer win in greater Minnesota? Klobuchar carried all eight of Minnesota’s congressional districts — though that 343-vote margin in CD7 did cut it a little close.
You’ve heard that ticket-splitting is a thing of the past? On Tuesday, thousands of Minnesotans filled in the square next to Klobuchar’s name, then voted for Republicans down the ballot.
You’ve heard that the Democratic Party has been hijacked by socialists and that bipartisanship is a dirty word among its activists? Klobuchar ranks high on bipartisanship scorecards kept by GovTrack and the Lugar Center and seems to issue a news release every other day touting a lawmaking venture with one or more Republicans. Yet she was the darling of this year’s DFL state convention.
How she won bears notice. Klobuchar, 58, had a little-known challenger in three-term Republican state Rep. Jim Newberger of Becker. She could have opted for a light campaign schedule. But Klobuchar is a great believer in in-person politics and relationship-based leadership. She kept the same hectic pace this year that she has in every election since she first ran for Hennepin County attorney in 1998. As senator, she has made good on her vow to visit each of Minnesota’s 87 counties every year.
Remember those nasty attack ads against her opponent? No, you don’t, because she aired none. The same can be said about her campaigns in 2006 and 2012. Klobuchar’s success puts the lie to claims that mean-spirited advertising is essential to a winning campaign.
Minnesotans increasingly see Klobuchar in a larger-than-Minnesota light. At a Minnesota History Center program on Oct. 23, former Vice President Walter Mondale was asked whether he saw any Minnesotans who might one day take the national stage as he did in 1984 and Hubert Humphrey did in 1968 as presidential candidates. As he briefly hesitated, a number of voices rose from the audience to reply “Amy!”
In Minnesota, she’s Amy, just as Mondale is Fritz and Humphrey was Hubert. In this unpretentious Midwestern state, first-name familiarity means no disrespect. I’d argue it signifies the opposite.
Now to the question I wanted Colbert to ask: Are you running for president?
Put another way: Can the “senator next door” from an unpretentious Midwestern state become the Democratic Party’s spear-carrier in 2020 against President Donald Trump, and win?
The arguments on the negative side are ones that have been applied to other Minnesota favorite sons and daughters since the days of Knute Nelson. Klobuchar is from a smallish state that’s far from the big media megaphones on the two coasts. She lacks the household name of Joe Biden or the impassioned national following of Elizabeth Warren. She’s a genuinely nice Minnesotan who might not stand out in a crowded field.
But the affirmative arguments are as strong, if not stronger. As her Colbert appearance attests, Klobuchar is already playing in the big show. Today a politician’s name can go from unknown to celebrated overnight. Hers just did, thanks to her steely performance vs. Brett Kavanaugh during his Sept. 27 Senate confirmation hearing.
Last week, voters showed a preference for leadership like Klobuchar’s in the Age of Trump. Female candidates who staked out center-left positions and ran respectful campaigns won in Iowa (Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne), Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin), Michigan (Gretchen Whitmer), Kansas (Laura Kelly) and Minnesota (Angie Craig and Tina Smith). These women all look to Klobuchar as their model and mentor.
In coming months, Democrats will be looking for an anti-Trump to nominate for president. A sensible, genuinely warm, hardworking Minnesotan with a quick wit and nerves of steel might fill the bill.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.