WASHINGTON – Two weeks before she was resoundingly re-elected to a third term, Sen. Amy Klobuchar took a day off the campaign trail in Minnesota to stump for local candidates in a state she’s visited a handful of times in her political career: Iowa.
Visits by ambitious politicians to the state with the first-in-the-nation caucus always fuel presidential speculation, and Klobuchar in recent months has experienced her turn in that national media spotlight. With a high-profile role in the U.S. Senate fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh followed by her overwhelming win in the politically pivotal Midwest, Klobuchar is the subject of presidential buzz as Democrats start to search for an opponent to President Donald Trump in two years.
“She’s viable, she is a centrist, and I’m sure that folks that matter look at that possibility and can certainly envision that in a general election against Trump she would look fantastic,” said Lou Frillman, a Minneapolis businessman and prominent Democratic donor.
In recent weeks, Klobuchar in various public remarks has commented on the political importance of Midwestern states. “This is the moment for the Midwest, and we don’t want to be forgotten again in a national election,” she said in a speech during her recent visit to Iowa, according to a story in the Des Moines Register.
Klobuchar has not talked publicly of an interest in running for president and did not grant an interview for this story. A longtime political adviser, Justin Buoen, provided this comment in an e-mail: “Many people have approached Amy about running for president but right now she is still thanking people who helped her lead a major winning ticket in Minnesota. Her support in rural counties and ability to get things done are the reasons most often mentioned to me,” he wrote.
Klobuchar has had at least one conversation about a national campaign, with a man who’s been a political mentor and who once led a presidential ticket himself. Former Vice President Walter Mondale said in an interview that, about five months ago, he urged Klobuchar to run for president.
“She got that engine that Humphrey had,” Mondale said, in reference to another Minnesota politician who ran nationally, Hubert Humphrey, who also served as vice president. “They never get tired — they just go and go and go.”
Mondale, who lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984, called Klobuchar tough but pleasant and said her popularity in Minnesota could have appeal across much of the country. Klobuchar won a third term earlier this month with 60 percent of the vote, including in many rural Minnesota counties that went for Trump two years earlier, and public opinion polls have repeatedly found her the most popular statewide politician in Minnesota.
Klobuchar is by far not the only Democrat mentioned as a 2020 prospect, and some other contenders are more well-known nationally. Former Vice President Joe Biden is still seen as a possible candidate, and a clutch of Klobuchar’s fellow U.S. senators have also commanded attention: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders, among others. Two politically engaged billionaires and, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, have also hinted at runs.
If Klobuchar gets in, it will test of whether her centrist, low-key style can translate onto the national stage. She has not embraced some issues championed by rising stars of the left, like Medicare for all. Her fellow senators from coastal states like California and New York are closer by proximity to the party’s largest donor bases. And with Latino and black voters key to Democrats’ campaign strategy, Klobuchar’s political base in a less diverse state like Minnesota leaves her without a track record of mobilizing voters of color.
“Klobuchar is disadvantaged because she does not already have a national profile, and may be too moderate to excite a Democratic base,” said Jennifer Victor, a political-science professor at George Mason University.
Victor said that Klobuchar’s profile as a Midwestern female moderate is potentially competitive. But she said Democratic activists might be looking for a candidate more likely to go at Trump. “Klobuchar doesn’t have a ‘tiger’ reputation,” she said. “Rather [she] has built her career in policy chops and pragmatism. This may not be a big draw in 2020.”
Just weeks after the midterm elections, in which Democrats regained a measure of power in Washington by taking the U.S. House majority, the national political press has started looking for signs of presidential intent by myriad possible candidates. Klobuchar has not escaped this attention: Writers at Politico, BuzzFeed and the Washington Post have touted her Midwestern pragmatism as a boon to the party.
“If you went into the lab and ran Tuesday’s algorithms to design the perfect Dem for 2020, she would look almost exactly like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who won a landslide re-election in her purple ... state on Tuesday,” Will Bunch, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, wrote last week.
In 2016, Trump won nearly every county outside of the Twin Cities and northeastern Minnesota. Earlier this month, Klobuchar scored some large wins in Greater Minnesota. She carried Beltrami County by 12 points, Koochiching County by 13 points and Itasca County by 11 points. She narrowly carried Stearns County, which backed Trump by 28 percentage points. Several DFL leaders in those areas said Klobuchar visits rural areas frequently and has a talent for making constituents feel heard.
“She’s a centrist and I think there is great appeal there for somebody who’s willing to work across the aisle,” said Jennifer Cronin, DFL Party chairwoman in western Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District.
Trump carried the Seventh by more than 30 percentage points; Klobuchar drew decent support in the region in her latest election. Cronin said she also likes Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, but said that Klobuchar “is one of the most genuine politicians out there and she is going to stick with what works for her.”
At last month’s Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Harris led a walkout of Democratic senators, and delivered a fiery speech on the eve of a full Senate vote in support of sexual assault survivors. And Kirsten Gillibrand has established herself as perhaps the most outspoken voice in the Senate against sexual misconduct.
But Mondale believes that Klobuchar showed presidential mettle in the way she handled exchanges with Kavanaugh during the Judiciary Committee hearing, especially an exchange where the judge asked Klobuchar if she’d ever been blackout drunk after she asked that of him.
When he urged her to run for president, Mondale said, “She just listened. She’s I think trying to make up her mind and I don’t blame her.”
As president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said he’s heard enthusiasm for Klobuchar from colleagues around the country who have hosted her at fundraising dinners.
“When you look at where Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, it was in the industrial Midwest and the Rust Belt, and when you see a candidate like Amy Klobuchar who can win in parts of the country that Democrats typically don’t, it’s certainly a sign that it’s something we should consider,” Martin said.
Vance Opperman, another prominent Democratic donor from Minnesota, said the country needs intelligent, even-tempered leadership.
“I think it would be good for Democrats to have somebody who can win, somebody who comes from the middle of the country ... [with] the ability to reach across the aisle and the ability to see all sides of the issue,” Opperman said.