If Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s presidential bid survives Iowa and New Hampshire, her prospects will be in the hands of more diverse groups of voters.
Nine in 10 residents of both states are white. The next 2020 caucuses are Feb. 22 in Nevada, where Klobuchar’s appeal to Latinos will be tested. In South Carolina, which votes Feb. 29, six in 10 Democratic presidential primary voters are black.
Klobuchar’s first stops in South Carolina were Saturday. She attended a Democratic Party breakfast in Greenville, where about 200 people gathered, then met with voters in Columbia. She said she plans to return often.
“She has a challenge to introduce herself to voters in the South,” said state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat, before her arrival. “When I travel, her name doesn’t immediately come out as even in the discussion.”
Besides the need to boost her profile, Klobuchar could face other hurdles. Competitors California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker are black. Julián Castro of Texas is Latino.
Some Democrats in Minnesota are uneasy about Klobuchar’s outreach to minority communities and her tenure as Hennepin County prosecutor.
“She does not have a reputation for being one to engage minority communities,” said Alberder Gillespie of Woodbury, a co-founder of Black Women Rising.
“She was tough on crime and … that had a negative impact on poor people and people of color,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a lawyer and former NAACP Minneapolis president. “Her policies were far too harsh in a community that was suffering under the weight of suppression.”
A study by the Vera Institute of Justice in New York used census data to track a drop in the incarceration rates of blacks in Hennepin County while Klobuchar was in office.
Klobuchar was asked about her agenda for black Americans at a CNN town hall Feb. 18. “To paraphrase Martin Luther King,” she said, “you can do all you can to integrate a lunch counter, but if you can’t afford a hamburger what good did you do? So for me the economics is key right now.”
She supports a $15 minimum wage and said on CNN that black workers need access to more training in science and math fields. Everyone, she said, should be “able to pursue the American dream.”
Johnathan Judd, who was elected mayor of Moorhead, Minn., in November, said Klobuchar’s background resonates with a diverse electorate.
“There’s a lot of core values that we all agree with,” he said. She’s from a middle-class family and “had to battle to get to where she’s at today. It’s safe to say that she had to get through similar barriers as persons of color.” His job is nonpartisan; those are his personal views.
Mandy Meisner is the first person of color to serve on the Anoka County Board and one of two Asian-American county commissioners in the state. “I personally have not been disappointed in how [Klobuchar] represents people of color,” she said. “People have been very positive in my district about her.” Meisner’s office is also nonpartisan and her opinions are her own.
Rodolfo Gutierrez, executive director of Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research, said the state’s Latinos like Klobuchar’s work on immigration, health care and employment.
“The nation is very much divided,” Gutierrez said. “She’ll be the president the U.S. needs.”
Steve Benjamin, the first African-American mayor of Columbia, S.C., advised Democratic presidential candidates not to shape their messages with ethnic groups in mind.
They should “resist the temptation of trying to speak just to different pockets of people,” he said, and make the case “that we’re going to build a country that speaks to the needs of all Americans.”
Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national political network for women of color, agreed.
“If you are a white candidate running for president … you’ve got to … embrace an approach where you identify with and speak to lots of different groups,” she said.
Klobuchar’s image in those communities is being shaped now, Allison said. “When you go to South Carolina, do you have relationships already or are you playing catch-up?”
So far, race hasn’t determined candidates’ standing in the state. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t joined the race, led a poll of South Carolina Democratic voters earlier in February. The Change Research survey found that 36 percent backed him, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 14 percent. Klobuchar and seven other Democrats were favored by 1 percent.
The state gave Barack Obama a convincing primary win in 2008. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won big there after her slim victory over Sanders in Iowa and his success by a big margin in New Hampshire.
Klobuchar’s showing in Nevada and South Carolina could be previews of Super Tuesday primaries on March 3. Alabama, California, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia are among states that will vote that day. The outcome in those diverse states could force some Democratic candidates out of the race.
Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said that Harris, Booker and Biden are capturing much of the attention there. “The first thing [Klobuchar] has to talk about is herself, because people do not know her,” he said.
Then she should “start out talking about the importance of voting rights,” he said, adding that education, health care and economic opportunity are other issues that cut across ethnic lines in South Carolina.
Kimpson, the state senator, believes that some voters will be attracted by Klobuchar’s pragmatic approach — in contrast to promises of free college and Medicare for all by some of the other candidates.
Most of all, South Carolina Democrats want to win back the White House, he said. Voters could coalesce behind a candidate — like Klobuchar or Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — who can deliver Electoral College votes from the Midwest.
“We don’t want the process to be futile,” Kimpson said.