It was Election Night 2018 on Twitter, and the national pundit class was suddenly very interested in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s margins of victory in rural Minnesota.
Josh Barro, a centrist columnist for New York Magazine, tweeted out a map of Minnesota displaying the votes garnered by Klobuchar versus her Republican opponent, Jim Newberger: not only did the map show Klobuchar’s overall 26-point, 400,000-vote lead (she would ultimately win by 600,000 votes) it also showed her turning blue what are normally deep-red counties in rural parts of the state — 43 counties, to be exact, that Donald Trump won in 2016.
Barro presented the map with a brief bit of commentary dripping in subtext: “I have a tip for Democrats who would like to not just beat Trump in 2020,” he said, “but bury him.”
That Klobuchar easily secured a third term in the U.S. Senate in last Tuesday’s midterm was no surprise. Also no surprise: that her victory would add to growing buzz about the Minnesota Democrat as a viable candidate for president in 2020.
That the blue map Barro tweeted out — a tantalizing image to a party still coming to grips with the loss of working-class white voters in the Midwest in 2016 — came on the heels of a breakout moment for Klobuchar in the high-profile hearings over Brett Kavanaugh and sexual assault only added lighter fuel to an already-burning fire of White House speculation around the senator.
To date, Klobuchar has remained predictably coy about any ambitions — rumored for years — beyond serving as Minnesota’s senior U.S. Senator. But for her and for several other possible 2020 candidates, last week’s midterm was the last fig leaf left to obscure an answer to the “are you running?” question. The next election on the calendar is now the all-important presidential one, and it appears that more people than ever are interested in Klobuchar’s answer to the big question.
Standing before an adoring crowd at the DFL Party’s election night celebration last week, Klobuchar declared in her victory speech that the Midwest was “left behind” in 2016.
“In 2018, Minnesota is roaring back to say, we are ‘One Minnesota,’” she said, invoking the campaign slogan of Gov.-elect Tim Walz that turned into a rallying cry for Minnesota Democrats in 2018. “It appears Minnesotans voted our dreams and not our fears. We voted for common sense and not blistering words. We voted for getting things done and not gamesmanship. And we voted for substance instead of subtweets… We voted for the way politics can be, should be, and with your help, will be.”
Political observers often parse the tea leaves of speeches like these, looking for notes of foreshadowing for an imminent presidential bid. Klobuchar’s speech, for its mention of “subtweets” — a term for veiled criticism on social media — was itself a veiled criticism of Trump, clear to those who were listening for it. At the same time, the senator’s speech was an amplification of her brand of pragmatic politics, which figures to be an emphatic part of any bid she makes for higher office — and possibly an impediment to her winning support in the party’s progressive base.
More than anything Klobuchar actually said, though, her strong performance on Tuesday night was the main thing stoking more 2020 speculation. She defeated Newberger, a state representative who failed to raise the money and support necessary to really compete, by 24 points, earning over 60 percent of the vote. That margin of victory was almost exactly the same as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose home state of Massachusetts leans much more to the left than Minnesota.
Klobuchar ran up the score in the metro-area counties, but she also had formidable margins in hotbeds of Trump support: in Beltrami County, a northern Minnesota county that Trump carried by 10 points, Klobuchar defeated Newberger by 12. She eked out a victory in western Minnesota’s Wilkin County, which went for Trump by almost 40 points in 2016. (There were some signs of post-Trump partisan hardening in rural Minnesota, though: in her 2012 reelection bid, Klobuchar carried Wilkin by 25 points. That year, she won all but two of Minnesota’s 87 counties.)
Some in the media, who had already been buzzing about Klobuchar as a dark horse candidate, went all-in after her decisive win. Columns began appearing, laying out the “case for Klobuchar.” In the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, columnist Will Bunch wrote that “Klobuchar feels like the fulfillment of what many of us have been saying since November 9, 2016 — that the Democrat who can beat Trump in 2020 was out there hiding in plain sight amid the baggage-carrying, way-too-familiar front runners.”
“Democrats are desperate to win back the Midwest,” they wrote. “If they are, then doesn’t it make sense to nominate someone who just won reelection to the Senate from a key Midwestern state by 24 points. It was by far the biggest win for any Democratic Midwestern senator. We’re reminded of another Midwestern senator who won his last election before running for president by a wide margin.”
Iowa trips and Colbert hits
Before CNN was comparing her favorably to Barack Obama, Klobuchar was doing things that invited 2020 speculation.
The weekend before the election, for example, Klobuchar was in Iowa, campaigning on behalf of a Democratic congressional candidate, Cindy Axne, in the suburbs of Des Moines. According to the web site Iowa Starting Line, which tracks visits of political notables to the Hawkeye State, it was the third time in the last two years that Klobuchar has popped down to the state that hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus. (Last spring, she headlined a fundraising dinner for Democrats in Polk County, the state’s most populous.)
A pre-election visit to Iowa is, typically, about as conspicuous as it gets for an ambitious politician — a blatant giveaway they’re seriously considering a White House bid. While Klobuchar’s visit certainly raised eyebrows, the senator is better-positioned to credibly make a low-key visit to Iowa than almost anyone else, according to Steffen Schmidt, a professor at Iowa State University who has been following the caucuses since the 1970s.
When people like Warren or Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey visit, Schmidt says, “we know it’s not because the weather is nice.” (That may explain why contenders like Booker and Harris have only gone to Iowa once each this year.) “That’s not the case with [Klobuchar],” he said, noting that she has been quietly visiting for years. “When she comes to Iowa, it is not to run for president. It may be she has that in the back of her mind, but it never surfaces. That’s a big advantage.”
“She’s really well known. We used to say the candidates who did well sometimes were ones who were neighbors,” he said. “While nationally, she’s probably not that well-known, she is really well-known among the people who count, for the caucuses, at least. They know who she is.”
In the past few months, many more people — in Iowa and elsewhere — have come to know who Klobuchar is. That’s thanks to her role in the contentious hearings in September investigating the allegations of sexual assault levied against Brett Kavanaugh, then a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unlike some hopefuls such as Booker, who was accused by Republicans of grandstanding during the Kavanaugh confirmation, Klobuchar’s big moment came up more organically, when she asked Kavanaugh if he had ever blacked out while drinking — a key line of questioning for Democrats concerned with the credibility of his testimony — and the judge responded by asking, “I don’t know, have you?”
The senator kept the focus on the question, and her toned-down handling of the situation won her widespread acclaim. “Her name recognition went way up with the Kavanaugh hearings,” Schmidt says. “That was a huge moment, that gave her massive national visibility and respect from a lot of people, Democrats and probably also independents, too.”
“The moment made Klobuchar a star, if not yet a superstar,” the Inquirer’s Bunch wrote.
Since then, Klobuchar has been appearing more often on cable news and nightly talk shows. On the eve of the election, she was on Stephen Colbert’s show in New York City, giving what she framed was Democrats’ “closing argument” in the midterms. She outlined what Democrats need to do to beat Trump in the Midwest: respect others, find common ground, and be willing to stand with people you don’t always agree with.
“The obvious question,” Colbert asked, “is, you’re running for re-election tomorrow. Why are you here?”
“First, I heard a rumor you have a pretty big audience,” Klobuchar said, “if you want remind everyone in the country to vote.”