After a breakout moment during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and a highly successful reelection campaign in 2018, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is gathering buzz as a potential sleeper candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2020. This article is part of a larger series exploring the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates in depth.
From Humble Beginnings
For those who are unfamiliar with the esteemed Senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar is a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. She was elected in 2006 as Minnesota’s first female Senator.
Amy Klobuchar was born in Plymouth, Minnesota, her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father was an alcoholic author. Her parents divorced when Amy was 15 years old. She is the granddaughter of Slovene immigrants, and her grandfather was a miner. These working class roots and powerful story of overcoming adversity in her early life make Klobuchar a compelling, relatable figure. She graduated as magna cum laude from Yale University in 1982, where she participated in the Young College Democrats and the Feminist Caucus.
Can She Catch Fire?
During the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, Amy Klobuchar took part in one of the definitive exchanges. When she asked him if he had ever blacked out, Kavanaugh deflected: “I don’t know, have you?” As if he were trying to normalize that level of intoxication as something that everyone in America has experienced. Klobuchar did not flinch, responding with “I have no drinking problem, judge.” Slam dunk. Especially when you consider her personal experience with alcoholism in her family, she handled this exchange with class and a level of seriousness that fit the gravity of the moment.
With her sharp wit and a midwesterner’s ability to “cut to the chase,” Klobuchar has a high likelihood of starring in a breakout presidential debate performance. Recent polling finds her in fourth place already in Iowa, behind Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and early fad candidate Beto O’Rourke. A couple of factors play in her favor: 1) She matches up well with the Iowan electorate, which is very similar to Minnesota’s; 2) Never underestimate the ability of Joe Biden to say something cringe-worthy at an inopportune moment during a political campaign; and 3) Although Bernie has built a strong nationwide following and dueled Hillary Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa, Sanders will not have a monopoly on “the left” in 2020 the same way that he had in 2016. With both the establishment and progressive factions split between multiple candidates, this gives Klobuchar an opening to score a key early victory. Coming in first or second in Iowa would vault Klobuchar into the top-tier of presidential contenders.
Also worth noting: Amy Klobuchar is a long-time favorite interviewee for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who currently hosts the #1 rated show in cable news. Expect Klobuchar to have an open invitation to appear on the program whenever she pleases. This will give her a platform to speak directly with the party’s activist base, strengthening her chances of building a broad coalition of support and drawing support from moderate and progressive voters alike.
Notable Policy Positions
- Advocates for increases in income taxes on the wealthy as a means of balancing the federal budget. Her past messaging has focused on fiscal responsibility; expect Klobuchar to draw a contrast with the Trump tax cuts that have further increased the federal deficit while furthering a growing problem of income inequality.
- Emphasizes infrastructure investment as a component of her plan to improve the American economy. This should be one of her central policy positions, as it plays to her working class background. Klobuchar has personal experience with the “crumbling infrastructure” narrative, having served as Minnesota’s senior Senator when the I-35W bridge collapsed. At the time, she said that it was a “wake up call.”
- Supports a bipartisan fix of the Obamacare law, focused at addressing gaps in coverage and premium subsidies. She has not voiced a public position on “Medicare for All,” which gives her the ability to maneuver that issue without appearing hypocritical if she chooses to endorse the plan. Expect her to attack Trump’s failure to deliver on his promise to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which will play as part of a broader messaging on controlling the cost of health care. She has also shown an ability to effectively humanize the issue of health care in her Senate floor speeches.
- Long history of supporting worker’s rights and unionization. She invited laid off steelworker Dan Hill to be her guest at the 2015 State of the Union, and Klobuchar has positioned herself as a vocal critic of Chinese efforts to undercut the U.S. steel industry. In this sense, she tries to strike a balance between protectionist trade policies and supporting the competitiveness of U.S. industries in the global marketplace.
- Supported “First Step” criminal justice reform initiative in 2018, but she has historically leaned towards “tough on crime” approaches as a former prosecutor. In addition to this, she has voiced support for strengthening efforts to collect restitution on behalf of victims of crime. She will take a stance on criminal justice that is open to reform measures while emphasizing the needs of victims in considering policy changes.
- She co-sponsored the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which emphasizes promoting the role of women and gender in foreign policy. Advocating for adding a feminist perspective to international affairs as a key component of her campaign would distinguish her from other female candidates.
- Supports gay marriage and abortion rights, two key litmus test social issues that no serious Democratic candidate for nationwide office could reasonably oppose in the year 2020.
- Supports the public financing of federal campaigns through the use of voter vouchers, which is a unique solution to the issue of corporate money and the outsized influence of the wealthy in electoral politics. Expect Klobuchar to endorse an array of “good democracy” initiatives similar to this while speaking out against Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies.
Path to Victory
Klobuchar’s strategy runs directly through Iowa. With a demographic make-up that closely resembles her home state, combined with Iowa voters’ familiarity with her as a neighboring state’s Senator, she is well-positioned to capitalize on warring factions within the party’s base of supporters. Watch her handling of the health care issue closely; she has a history of advocating for a bipartisan fix of the Obamacare law, but has been notably silent on the progressive litmus test issue of a “Medicare for All” program that Sen. Sanders and other like-minded candidates will undoubtedly be pushing in 2020. If she comes out in support of “Medicare for All,” Klobuchar’s moderate credentials give her a unique ability to bridge the divide between the establishment and progressive wings of the party. However, a decision not to endorse “Medicare for All” would not necessarily be a death knell for her campaign — provided that the other moderate candidates fade into the background while the progressive voters fail to coalesce around a single candidate. Nevertheless, serving as a “unifying figure” for the party would ultimately give Klobuchar the strongest chance of securing the nomination.
At the height of the 2016 general election with the release of the Access Hollywood tape where Donald Trump was caught admitting to a pattern of sexual harassment in a dismissive, joking, and fundamentally entitled fashion, Trump’s campaign responded by inviting Bill Clinton’s accusers to the second debate. Although this move reeked of desperation, the theatrics came to symbolize a powerful flaw with Clinton’s candidacy. However unfair it may seem to characterize Hillary by the reprehensible actions of her husband, any attack on Trump’s treatment of women could be easily responded to in one sentence: “yeah, but what about Bill?” Her husband ultimately hurt Hillary Clinton’s credibility on an issue that should have been one of her campaign’s unique strengths. Klobuchar and the other 2020 female candidates will not face a similar hurdle, and will be able to more effectively weaponize Trump’s treatment of women. These attacks should be even more potent with the events unfolding around Stormy Daniels and Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen. Furthermore, imagine Klobuchar applying the same rhetorical style that she used to great effect against Brett Kavanaugh — calm, collected, and stern with a small pinch of “are you fucking kidding me right now” — while confronting Trump on these issues in a general election debate.
Although other potential female candidates have generated more buzz thus far; Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand; Amy Klobuchar’s viability should be taken as seriously as any other potential top-tier candidate. One unique factor in the 2020 Democratic primary is that it will be the first time in American history where there will be multiple female candidates with a serious chance of winning the nomination. This is a new type of challenge that Hillary Clinton did not have to face in either 2008 or 2016. If Klobuchar demonstrates strong support in Iowa, the narrative around her candidacy will quickly change and it is possible that women will begin to galvanize around her if she appears to be the most viable female candidate. Donald Trump’s election immediately sparked a wave of feminist backlash in the form of the Women’s March. After coming so close in 2016, the allure of “shattering the glass ceiling” is stronger than ever before.
Another point in Klobuchar’s favor is her outspokenness in the current discussion of “what Democrats need to defeat Donald Trump.” She is attempting to address the concerns of the “Obama-Trump” voters who tipped the election in Trump’s favor. Democrats don’t need their own version Trump, Klobuchar thinks that Democrats need the polar opposite of Trump. When searching for someone who contrasts with Trump’s brash, radical, and divisive approach to politics, it would be hard to find a more better foil than Amy Klobuchar. Her credibility as a fighter for the working class is nowhere near as heralded as Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, but her record on these issues will not be easily dismissed either. With a history of moderation, Klobuchar may emerge as an alternative to the left-wing firebrands with the claim of being a viable general election candidate that can still utilize similar messaging in a way that effectively speaks to the economic angst of “the forgotten voters” who supported Trump as an act of rebellion against a status quo that does not represent their interests.
It also should be stated that searching for negative coverage of Klobuchar yields surprisingly little in the way of actual results. She appears to be the rare breed of politician that doesn’t have an easily identifiable weakness. Elizabeth Warren’s Ancestry.com shenanigans raised concerns among minority voters, particularly Native Americans, that she has a “racial blind spot.” Similar concerns have been expressed about Sen. Bernie Sanders and his base of supporters that consists largely of white males. Joe Biden, again, suffers from an incurable case of “foot in mouth syndrome.” Each of the other major contenders has a high-profile issue with their candidacy that has already played out on a national scale, whereas Klobuchar’s status as a relatively unknown politician and an underdog give her candidacy a unique lack of political baggage. I eagerly await to see what derisive nickname Trump will invent for her; but I don’t think that it will come as easily to him as “Crooked Hillary,” “Crazy Joe,” and “Pocahontas” did.
By appealing to the energy among the party’s women activists, which have been mobilized by the election of Donald Trump and the advent of the #MeToo movement in a way that is unprecedented in modern American politics, while drawing support from both the establishment and progressive wings of the party, Klobuchar has the potential to build a winning coalition that could propel her to the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2020 and ultimately to the White House.