KNOXVILLE, IOWA – Mary Lane didn’t want to miss her chance to meet Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Lane wanted to see her in action as she weighed the merits of the many Democrats already vying for her vote ahead of next year’s Iowa caucuses.
So on Sunday, Lane and her husband joined the plows clearing the snow-slicked roads to see the senator speak at a soup potluck organized by her local Democratic Party. As Klobuchar made the rounds, Lane thanked her for coming to the small city 45 minutes southeast of Des Moines.
“You have to be where the action is,” Klobuchar responded. “You’re the action.”
Such gatherings will be the focus of Klobuchar’s presidential campaign until Hawkeye State voters pick their presidential nominee next Feb. 3. The first-in-the nation caucuses have long served as a make-or-break moment for many campaigns.
For Klobuchar, who lacks the national name identification and fundraising prowess of some of her competitors for the Democratic nod, a strong showing in the state is crucial.
“Nationally, she may not be well known or nationally she may not be polling very high,” said Ronnie Cho, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Barack Obama’s come-from-behind caucus win in 2008. “[But] if she comes out of this and she wins, that would be huge for her.”
Minnesota Republicans Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty saw their chances dissipate after failing to gain traction there.
The stakes on the line in Iowa were on display during Klobuchar’s first official campaign swing through the state over the weekend.
In a series of appearances, the three-term senator preached the importance of “heartland economics” and working to “bridge the urban-rural divide” as she made the case that strong connections to the must-win Midwest are key to defeating President Donald Trump in 2020.
At stop after stop, she greeted local Democratic leaders in the audience by name and she reminded audiences of her long track record of visiting the state. She’s made at least a dozen public appearances in Iowa since 2017, according to political site Iowa Starting Line, including trips to campaign for candidates up and down the ballot in 2018.
“I love coming here,” she told Democrats at a Mason City restaurant Saturday. “I have been here for so many of your campaigns, winning and losing, and I know how tough it can be but how you guys never give up.”
Those investments appear to have paid dividends, especially in the northeastern Iowa region bordering Minnesota. Many people at events over the weekend cited her past work on behalf of local candidates.
“She’s like the neighbor girl,” JoAnn Hardy, chair of the Cerro Gordo County Democrats, said. “We feel like we like her and we know her.”
Even with those efforts — and a potential home region advantage — Klobuchar faces a long, tough path through a crowded field that includes some of her party’s biggest stars. A December poll by the Des Moines Register put her in seventh place, pulling about 3 percent support in the state. Voters are already being inundated with visits from declared and potential White House hopefuls. At two stops over the weekend, Klobuchar shared the room with rival candidates.
“It’s mind boggling,” said Jan Evans, a Knoxville Democrat. “There are so many running who are people I admire and whose view I share.”
Crafting a strong message that resonates with Iowa voters will help set candidates apart from the competition, experts and local activists say. Klobuchar has sought to do that with her emphasis on rural issues and working across the aisle. But veteran organizers say campaign infrastructure on the ground and voter outreach will also be essential.
“Each of the campaigns will have the best branding and the best messaging and the best data and the best communication strategy, everyone will have world-class campaign tactics,” Cho said. “So what will distinguish one campaign over the other will be how meaningfully the campaign organizers connect with Iowans.”
Key to that will be building out staff and volunteer networks who can keep the campaign front of mind when the candidate is in other states and turn out supporters when caucus day arrives.
“We take our caucus seriously, we also take our ground troops seriously,” said Democratic activist Randy Black, who has hosted Klobuchar in the past as chair of the Wing Ding Dinner fundraiser. “We know how important it is to have workers on the ground, especially in the rural areas.”
That might be easier said than done. The growing Democratic field has created a staffing crunch as candidates scramble to hire seasoned operatives.
Casey Castaner, a Democratic operative who worked in northwestern Iowa in 2018, said she’s already been approached by at least three presidential campaigns. At one recent event, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker personally asked for her résumé after hearing about her background.
A week into her bid, Klobuchar is making hires of her own. The campaign hired Lauren Dillon, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee alumna with Iowa ties, as its Iowa state director. Andy McGuire, a former Iowa Democratic Party chair and gubernatorial candidate, worked the crowd at a Knoxville brewery Sunday, singing Klobuchar’s praises and amplifying her message. “The things she says about rural issues? She gets it,” she told one attendee.
Klobuchar said Dillon’s hire was the first of many she planned to make in the state. The campaign decision to set its headquarters in Minnesota will also help her efforts to have a strong Iowa presence, she added, noting that President Obama had his in nearby Illinois.
Even with a late start compared with some rivals, Black said he sees Klobuchar’s staffing and presence as “even keel” with the other candidates at this stage in the race. He cited the fact that the Mason City event came together in three days as a good sign. Dozens of supporters waited for nearly an hour in an overflow area at a nearby mall for an encore speech after the initial venue hit its legal capacity.
“They knew how to reach out, they knew who to reach out to,” he said.
Keeping that momentum going will require widening her reach beyond the areas of the state Klobuchar has frequented in the past. Catherine Crooks, chair of Franklin County Democrats, said Klobuchar and other candidates shouldn’t overlook smaller counties.
Klobuchar, who is known for visiting all corners of Minnesota, said her goal was to visit “a great number” of Iowa’s 99 counties with an emphasis on interacting with voters face-to-face.
Her campaign’s next stops Monday were scheduled for New Hampshire, the site of the nation’s first primary, which she said reflected her plan to stage a 50-state campaign.
Just three days later, she’ll return to the Hawkeye State to speak at the Ankeny Area Democrats’ Winter Banquet.
“We’ve got to put the effort into it,” she said.