Sen. Amy Klobuchar offers Democrats a Midwestern road to the White House

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) addresses the crowd at a snowy rally where she announced she is entering the race for her party's presidential nomination Sunday.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) addresses the crowd at a snowy rally where she announced she is entering the race for her party’s presidential nomination Sunday.
(Jim Mone / Associated Press)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar doesn’t have much star power in a Democratic primary packed with it. She can’t compete with several of the other presidential hopefuls in social media presence, fundraising aptitude, or even ability to fire up the base with big, ambitious policy plans.

But the Minnesota pragmatist who joined the race Sunday brings with her a different asset: the promise of credibility with Midwesterners like those who soured on the Democratic Party in 2016 and could prove crucial in determining whether President Trump gets reelected.

“I don’t have a political machine. I don’t come from money. But what I do have is this: I have grit,” Klobuchar declared as a persistent snowfall pelted down on the rostrum at her outdoor announcement rally in a park along the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis. Temperatures stood in the mid-teens, made colder-feeling by a stiff breeze as she spoke, her voice occasionally stuttering from the cold.


“We are tired of the shutdowns and the showdowns, the gridlock and the grandstanding,” she said. “Today, we say enough is enough.”

The fifth senator — and the sixth woman — to enter the rapidly growing Democratic field, the 58-year-old former prosecutor and three-term senator enters the race an unknown to many voters outside her native state. A veteran lawmaker, Klobuchar is more a behind-the-scenes deal maker than soapbox orator.

Who’s in the race, and who’s still on the fence? »

Klobuchar’s congressional calling has been bipartisan coalition building in the dwindling number of policy areas where that remains possible, focusing on consumer protection, agriculture and other topics that don’t often grab national headlines.

She offered a taste of that in her announcement, talking of issues such as digital privacy and worker training initiatives that have been largely eclipsed in other candidates’ speeches.

And although she also hit many of the same themes as other Democrats — expanded access to healthcare, for example, and stronger action against climate change — she avoided the language that several of her rivals have used to appeal to activists on the party’s left.


She said, for example, that the country needs to “invest in green jobs and infrastructure” but did not utter the words “Green New Deal” that many progressives use. Similarly, she called for “getting to universal healthcare” but did not endorse “Medicare for all,” which has become a litmus test for some Democrats. In the Senate, she has supported a more modest overhaul of the healthcare system and has focused her energy on efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs.

Klobuchar landed in the national spotlight during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, keeping her cool as he lashed out at her when she asked whether his drinking might have affected his memory of the night Christine Blasey Ford says he sexually assaulted her.

Kavanaugh’s condescending response — asking whether the senator had ever blacked out from drinking — was a galvanizing moment for opponents of the nomination. He later apologized.

The buzz about Klobuchar’s potential to break out as an alternative to better-known coastal Democratic presidential contenders began to increase after that hearing. It intensified with her commanding reelection victory in November, when she cruised to victory with 60% of the vote in a state Trump almost put in the Republican column in 2016.

Klobuchar won many of the rural counties Trump carried. A poll in October by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio found her with a 57% approval rating in her home state -- nearly double Trump’s.

Hers was an impressive showing at a time Democratic senators in states Trump carried failed to win reelection.


Also impressive is the senator’s skill at projecting an image on the stump and on the Senate floor as “Minnesota Nice” — self-deprecating, folksy, relatable. The announcement for her launch rally promised hot cocoa would be served, offsetting the subfreezing Minneapolis winter temperature.

Her reputation among Capitol Hill denizens is different. The senator churns through staff at a rate few lawmakers match, and the Capitol is littered with stories of people who have fled her office, several of which have been grist for critical articles in recent days.

Asked by reporters after her speech about the issue, Klobuchar said she had “high expectations for myself. I have high expectations for the people who work for me. But I have high expectations for this country, and that’s what we need.”

For now, Klobuchar has the Midwestern label mostly to herself in the Democratic field. She could find her lane crowded, however, if another Democrat whose reelection was arguably even more meaningful to Democrats than her own joins the race.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is mulling a presidential run, was reelected in a state Trump won, albeit with a victory significantly less sweeping than Klobuchar’s.

The two senators are very different politicians: Brown is a vocal union supporter whose political message is focused on the dignity of work, while Klobuchar takes a more moderate stance, both rhetorically and in her votes on some issues. But they would be selling primary voters a similar path to winning back the White House through the industrial Midwest.


Regardless of who else joins what is expected to be a crowded field, Klobuchar will likely run as a fence mender, not a firebrand.

“I will focus on getting things done,” she said in Sunday’s speech.

Her candidacy highlights the challenge Democrats face in trying to address the anxieties of white, working-class voters while aggressively pursuing racial-justice issues and the big-ticket progressive policies that energize activists in the party’s coastal strongholds.

Whether Democrats can be convinced Klobuchar-style moderation is a better path to the White House than unyielding embrace of the anti-Trump resistance will become clearer as the campaign wears on.

As the other presidential hopefuls in the Senate — Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker — boast that roughly five or more out of every six votes they cast on legislation went against Trump, Klobuchar, according to statistics compiled by FiveThirtyEight, has voted with the president nearly a third of the time.

Two dozen bills with her name on them were signed by Trump in the last Congress, a point of pride for the Minnesotan. The issues involved were as varied as opioid addiction, water infrastructure and elder abuse.

That bipartisanship has won her plaudits from Republican colleagues and a dose of derision from critics who accuse her of spending too much time sweating the small stuff, building her career in Washington around playing small ball.


Yet in this chaotic political era when voters are unnerved by the chronic instability and dysfunction in Washington, Klobuchar will aim to stake out a place for herself in the race as a reassuring, steady hand who can build consensus and steer the federal government away from crisis.

More stories from Evan Halper » | Twitter: @evanhalper