In three days — and after almost an interminable year of campaigning — Americans will finally begin the process of selecting the next president. On Monday night, Iowans will head to caucus sites around their state to select their preferred candidates for the Republican and Democratic Party nominations.
So far, three Minnesota Democrats — Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tim Walz, and Rep. Keith Ellison — have hit the campaign trail in Iowa. Klobuchar and Walz have stumped for the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, while Ellison is backing the insurgent campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sen. Al Franken is officially backing Clinton too, but he has gone to New Hampshire to campaign for her ahead of that state’s February 9 primary. The three remaining Democrats — Reps. Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan, and Collin Peterson — have not officially endorsed anyone yet.
Minnesota’s three Republican representatives, meanwhile, have steered clear of their party’s primary process: not one has officially backed a GOP candidate yet.
Klobuchar campaigns with fellow Senate women
Klobuchar, who endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, has logged some serious hours on the campaign trail for Clinton, and has emerged as a prominent surrogate for the candidate in the media.
In Iowa, Klobuchar has often appeared on the trail with a group of fellow Democratic women in the Senate. Earlier this month, she hit an event in the northeast Iowa town of Dubuque with a trio of colleagues: Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
And, on January 24, Klobuchar shared the stage with one of the many celebrities who’ve publicly supported Clinton. At an event in Waukee, on the western edge of Des Moines, Klobuchar plugged Clinton alongside actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
In a statement to MinnPost, Klobuchar said that her visits to Iowa have convinced her that Clinton “has a strong grassroots campaign in Iowa and across the country,” adding that “it helps that she grew up in the Midwest as well.” (Clinton is from a suburb of Chicago.)
Walz: A rural Democrat from a neighboring district
Though he might not be as familiar to non-Minnesotans as Klobuchar, Rep. Walz has been dispatched to Iowa to stump for Clinton. In December, he participated in a three-city swing, attending events at VFW halls in Dubuque and Waterloo, and a debate-watch party in Mason City. Walz formally backed Clinton last year, and he recalls positively the experience of working with then-Sen. Clinton on a veterans’ bill when he got to Congress in 2007.
The five-term congressman told MinnPost in an interview that the Clinton campaign reached out to him about going to Iowa, and probably for two reasons. For one, his First District runs the length of the Minnesota-Iowa border, and some media from the north spills into the south — so Walz is somewhat of a familiar face in that corner of the Hawkeye State.
Also, Walz — who grew up in rural Nebraska — is a rare House Democrat representing a rural area, and as such, is a valuable asset in Clinton’s effort to court those kinds of voters. His background as a non-commissioned officer in the Army National Guard and work on veterans’ issues doesn’t hurt, either. “They pick where you think you can make a difference,” he says.
Walz isn’t under any illusions that whoever wins Iowa will capture another Midwestern caucus state — Minnesota. He said that while his corner of Minnesota is very similar to Iowa, the states’ cultures are different, and trying to divine the outcome in Minnesota based on Iowa is useless. “It’s a long ways from being done,” he said, adding that he thinks people will end up supporting “pragmatic leadership, compromising to get things done, setting high goals. Minnesota tends to fall in that. But you can’t necessarily say anything because of Iowa.”
Walz acknowledged Iowa’s importance in the national process, but he didn’t seem jealous of it. “It’s healthy when people are engaged in the process. It’s neat,” he said. “It’s not a Minnesota-Iowa friction thing, they’re certainly punching above their weight. People who have won the caucus haven’t gone on to win the presidency. It distorts the process. I don’t think I’d wish it on Minnesota the way they do it.”
Ellison pleasantly surprised
Rep. Ellison, meanwhile, has broken with his Minnesota Democratic colleagues by backing Sanders. And in doing that, he’s also set himself apart from nearly all his congressional colleagues: Ellison is only one of two sitting members of Congress to endorse Sanders. (Over 180 Democratic lawmakers have officially endorsed Clinton.)
The Minneapolis congressman calls Sanders, the only Senate member of the Progressive Caucus, a good friend, and has stumped for him not just in Iowa, but in D.C., South Carolina, and Minnesota.
In December, Ellison tried to convince Iowans that Sanders deserves their support. At the height of the furor over GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims, Ellison appeared in Cedar Rapids — the site of the country’s longest-standing mosque — and told voters that supporting Sanders was a way to combat discrimination against Muslim-Americans.
Ellison heads to Iowa this weekend to do some last-minute stumping for the Vermonter. In an interview with MinnPost, Ellison said he is surprised by how well the 74-year-old progressive has been doing in the polls. In October, when he endorsed Sanders, he says he asked himself, “How can I, given everything I stood for, not support it even if we don’t win? I have to support it.” Now, he says, “I’m actually a little bit pleasantly surprised we’re doing as well as we are.”
Ellison says he’s confident Sanders will win Iowa if the big crowds the senator has attracted translate into caucus-goers. If it does, he says it’ll have big implications for Minnesota. “I certainly think that Iowa will start a chain of events… I think you can assume if it’s playing in Iowa, it’s probably playing in Minnesota,” he says, adding that the two states share a “common sensibility.”
It was clear, though, Ellison relishes the Iowa fray a little more than Walz. He admitted that he wishes Minnesota got the quadrennial national spotlight the way that its southern neighbor does.
“I think it would be interesting if we did… It’d be very interesting because Minnesota is very representative of most of the country in many ways. For now, we just gotta deal with the cards that’s dealt.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the state Sen. Baldwin represents.