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It’s who you know: the Minnesota delegation’s ties to the Democratic presidential field

For some of Minnesota’s representatives in Congress, connections to presidential candidates are strong, going back years — and may give clues how Minnesota leaders will figure into the 2016 race.

Al Franken interviews then-Sen. Hillary Clinton for his show on Air America radio in 2004.

With much of the 2016 presidential buzz centered on a handful of states — including a particular one over the southern border — you might be forgiven for thinking that Minnesota is an electoral backwater, disconnected from the main movers and shakers in the presidential contest.

Sure, Minnesota is no Iowa come election season, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant: Last Friday, four out of the five declared Democratic presidential candidates traveled to Minneapolis for the Democratic Party’s annual summer meeting. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee assembled in front of the national and state Democratic Party faithful to make their case to be the party’s nominee in 2016.

Also present were members of the Minnesota congressional delegation. For some of them, connections to presidential candidates are strong, going back years — and may give clues how Minnesota leaders will figure into the 2016 race.

Hillary Clinton

Befitting her quarter-century in the highest echelon of Democratic Party politics, Hillary Clinton has political connections that run broad and deep in every corner of the country. Minnesota is no exception: At some point in their careers, most of the state’s Democratic members of Congress have benefited from Bill and Hillary’s influence and power — and tried to return the favor, too.

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Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar are both considered key Clinton allies, and were among the first politicians to back her 2016 presidential bid. Franken’s connection with the Clintons goes back to 1996, when the then-full-time entertainer roasted President Clinton at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

In 2008, when Franken was mounting his first Senate run, both Clintons frequently traveled to Minnesota to stump for him. Some progressives credit them with pushing Franken to his narrow victory over Republican Norm Coleman. The Clintons returned to Minnesota again in 2014 to campaign for Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-elections.

Klobuchar also benefited from a Clinton visit — in 2006, then-Sen. Hillary came to Minnesota to campaign for Klobuchar’s first run, an event Klobuchar recalls fondly in her newly released memoir. Klobuchar has hosted fundraisers benefiting Hillary’s presidential candidacy since at least last year, and has traveled to Iowa to campaign for her.

In recent weeks, Klobuchar has emerged as a vocal surrogate for the candidate, appearing on CBS and MSNBC to stump for Clinton and defend her as the never-ending email scandal unfolds. Klobuchar is sometimes mentioned as a potential running-mate for Clinton, or a possible Cabinet appointee. (Then again, Klobuchar’s name is thrown out for a lot of stuff.)

The Clinton and Klobuchar camps have a few staffers in common, including Jake Sullivan, a top Clinton aide and Minneapolis native who formerly worked for Klobuchar.

Clinton can also count on a few Minnesotan allies in the House of Representatives. Along with Klobuchar, Reps. Rick Nolan and Betty McCollum hosted a fundraiser in 2014 for Clinton’s pre-campaign super PAC, Ready for Hillary. In an interview on WCCO earlier this month, McCollum said she would be supporting Clinton’s bid. Rep. Tim Walz also announced his support for the former secretary of state. (Nolan has not made a formal endorsement.)

Rep. Keith Ellison has said he’s a fan of Hillary, and defended her earlier this year from criticism over Bill Clinton’s decision to continue delivering paid speeches during his wife’s candidacy.  

Ellison has withheld any formal endorsement, but the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which he co-chairs, met with the candidate earlier this year on Capitol Hill. It’s no secret that Ellison — who is also a big admirer of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — would like to see Clinton take more boldly progressive stances on some issues.

Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton may have a reservoir of Minnesota good will that will serve her well on the campaign trail — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any left over for Bernie Sanders. The socialist Vermont senator’s insurgent campaign does not have much concrete support from the Minnesota delegation, but some members have plenty of good things to say about him.

Earlier this month, Sanders’ Senate colleague Klobuchar said that his run was good for the party. (Klobuchar and Sanders are in the same Senate class, entering in 2007.)

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“Bernie has a heartfelt message,” Klobuchar said, adding that Clinton’s message is similar. In her book, Klobuchar admiringly describes Sanders railing against problems in the post-recession Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Though Franken will back Clinton, he and Sanders appear to have a warm relationship: In 2011, Franken showed up at a Sanders town hall meeting in Vermont, and ribbed the senator with a (pretty funny) impression. (Franken also praised him: “You have a great senator in Bernie Sanders,” he told the crowd.)

Ellison also has a deep fondness for Sanders, the lone senator in the Progressive Caucus. (Nolan is also a CPC member.) The two have collaborated on a number of issues over the years — particularly on income inequality and Wall Street reform — and Sanders appeared at a 2014 fundraiser for Ellison in Minneapolis. The two lawmakers also draw resources from the same pool of national progressive activists, including environmental and labor groups.

What about Biden?

The three other declared Democratic candidates — O’Malley, Chafee, and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who did not visit Minneapolis — don’t really register in Minnesota political circles. (Though Webb, like Sanders, was also in Klobuchar’s Senate class.)

However, one potential candidate — who has yet to enter the race — does register: Vice President Joe Biden. In the last few weeks, Biden and his allies have shaken up the Democratic primary contest with some well-placed press leaks suggesting that he is seriously weighing one more White House run.

It’s all speculation at this point, of course, and Biden could easily end up not running. If he does run, though, he could pick up some Minnesota support: Rick Nolan is said to be a huge fan of Biden. In 2014, the vice president traveled to the 8th District to campaign on behalf of Nolan. There is a Klobuchar-Biden connection, too: Jake Sullivan, her former staffer and current Clinton aide, was a top security adviser to the vice president.

Alas, Biden was nowhere to be found this weekend in Minneapolis, leaving those hoping for some Joe-mentum to wait another day.