WASHINGTON –– 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 candidates 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. They could prove crucial in determining whether President Donald Trump is re-elected.
“I don’t have a political machine. I don’t come from money. But what I do have is this: I have grit,” Klobuchar said as a persistent snowfall pelted down on the rostrum at her outdoor announcement rally in a park along the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis.
“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 also the fifth 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 dealmaker than soapbox orator.
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 get national attention.
She offered a taste of that in her announcement, talking of issues such as digital privacy and worker training initiatives that have been largely absent from other candidates’ speeches.
And although she also hit many of the same themes as other Democrats — expanded access to health care, 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 health care,” but did not endorse “Medicare for all,” which has become a litmus test for some Democrats. In the Senate, she has supported more modest changes in the health care system and has focused her energy on lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
Klobuchar landed in the national spotlight during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, keeping her cool as he lashed out at her when she asked if his drinking may have affected his memory of the night Christine Blasey Ford says he sexually assaulted her.
Kavanaugh’s condescending response –– asking if 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 candidates began to increase after that hearing. It intensified with her commanding re-election victory in November, when she won 60 percent of the vote in a state Trump almost put in the Republican column in 2016.
Klobuchar won many of the rural counties Trump carried.
Hers was an impressive showing at a time Democratic senators in states Trump carried failed to win re-election.
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, and relatable.
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 about the issue after her speech Sunday, 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 to herself in the Democratic field. She could find her lane crowded, however, if another Democrat whose re-election was arguably even more meaningful to Democrats than her own joins the race.
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who is considering running, was re-elected 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.
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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 continues.
As presidential candidates in the Senate, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker boast that at least five 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 as 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.
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