Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar ended her presidential campaign in March, but she may not be out of presidential politics in 2020 and beyond.
With apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden committed to selecting a woman as his running mate, influential Democrats and national pundits see Klobuchar as a top contender for the No. 2 spot, where she could presumably help deliver Minnesota and other Midwestern battleground states expected to be pivotal in November.
But the competition is stiff. Competitors include Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan; and Stacey Abrams, the 2018 candidate for governor of Georgia. Another dozen or more members of Congress, governors and other political players are likely to round out Biden’s initial list.
A Biden campaign spokeswoman confirmed that the selection process is already underway but declined to share additional details.
Klobuchar and a handful of leading contenders will be subject to an intense political calculus that factors in experience, geography, diversity, political bearing and personal compatibility as Biden and his advisers look for their strongest play in the coming clash with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Given her close personal and political affinity with Biden, himself a former vice president, some close observers put Klobuchar on the shortest of shortlists.
“I don’t think this is just a pipe dream being spun up by the people around her to increase her chances,” Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL Party, said of Klobuchar’s chances. “I know that the vice president is seriously considering her. I’ll tell you, just based on my conversations with his campaign and others, Biden is fond of her.”
Traditionally, presidential candidates name a running mate shortly before the summer political conventions. Some Democratic insiders expect Biden to move earlier this year, perhaps within the next month.
Biden clinched the nomination earlier than normal, which has left him out of national headlines while Trump is front and center in coverage of the federal government’s COVID-19 response. Naming a running mate would generate media attention and provide an important surrogate for appealing to voters and courting donors, given that the pandemic has halted traditional campaigning.
Until Biden moves, it’s a guessing game, rampant with speculation, behind-the-scenes positioning — and sometimes even false flags.
“It’s not uncommon for the campaign to leak names to test political reactions or to create a misdirection to help keep the real pick under wraps,” said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
He knows the drill. In 2008, Pawlenty was a finalist for Republican John McCain’s presidential ticket but lost out to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
That was the closest a Minnesotan got to the White House since the days of Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, who held the vice president’s job respectively from 1977-81 and 1965-69.
Both men subsequently lost national elections. No Minnesotan has ever been president. If Biden picks Klobuchar, who is 59, it would vastly elevate her national profile, positioning her well for another bid of her own in four or eight years.
Biden’s choice is seen as particularly important given his age — he’s 77 — and the prospect that, if he wins, he might not run again in 2024.
“Nominees always say the most important factor is picking someone who is ready to be president,” Pawlenty said, adding that it “may actually be true this time.”
Mondale, for whom Klobuchar worked as an intern during his time as No. 2 to President Jimmy Carter, said she would be a strong pick.
“She’s got deep experience in the Congress. She’s got contacts all over the country now from running herself,” Mondale said. “She’s a good candidate, a good campaigner. She could help him win.”
Working in Klobuchar’s favor are her three statewide wins in Minnesota, especially her strong performance with suburban, exurban and rural voters. States with similar demographics such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are expected to be pivotal to winning the White House this year; as a candidate for president, Klobuchar spoke often of building a “blue wall” across the industrial Midwest.
Klobuchar’s centrist politics also track closely with Biden’s own profile.
Working against those assets is the perception that Biden already has strong appeal in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. And progressives disenchanted by Biden’s defeat of Sen. Bernie Sanders might be repelled by a politically middle-of-the-road ticket.
Klobuchar’s clearest disadvantage is that many Democratic politicians, activists and voters are openly urging Biden to pick a woman of color.
“I believe it would be a mistake to have an all-white ticket,” said Jess McIntosh, a Democratic operative with a background in Minnesota politics who now co-hosts a politics program on SiriusXM. “If we win this, it’s because voters of color made it happen.”
Joel Payne, a D.C. strategist who led advertising outreach to blacks for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said Democrats’ best path to carrying the Midwest is probably not winning back white voters who swung to Trump four years ago.
“I do think Biden does need help in the Michigans, the Wisconsins. But he needs help in the cities,” Payne said. “He needs help in Milwaukee, in Detroit.”
In 2016, Clinton chose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate. They were close ideologically, and he hailed from a key swing state.
Kaine “did not fill out Clinton’s coalition, where maybe an African-American on the ticket would have surged turnout in Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia,” Payne said. “And we would have won.”
Klobuchar declined to be interviewed for this story. In previous interviews, she has refused to engage in speculation about her VP chances.
With her focus back in the Senate after exiting the presidential race, Klobuchar, like most federal lawmakers, has concentrated on pandemic response. A major emphasis has been her push for expanded early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, which has emerged as an election-year flash point between Democrats and Republicans — and which could serve as a tailor-made issue for a vice presidential candidate.
Candidates for VP are expected to be on the political attack, leaving the top of the ticket to stay above the fray. And Klobuchar in recent weeks has kept up her criticism of Trump and his handling of the federal government’s coronavirus response.
“Right now, we need a leader who will tell the truth to Americans — not turn his briefings into propaganda,” Klobuchar said Wednesday on CNN. “He turns it into a propaganda piece when people are dying.”