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As state’s only senator, Klobuchar gains sympathetic attention

Sen. Amy Klobuchar questions a witness during a congressional hearing.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar questions a witness during a congressional hearing.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Congress marches toward summer, Amy Klobuchar’s unenviable position as Minnesota’s only senator — a role that has required additional resources and energy — has also come with a silver lining: loads of ongoing sympathetic media coverage and a growing national reputation as a hard-working lawmaker who doesn’t complain, according to Democratic and Republican strategists and political analysts.

“She gets to rise above politics and play the little Dutch boy running around putting her finger in the dike,” said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. “And who doesn’t sympathize with the little Dutch boy? That has helped her certainly in Minnesota and nationally it has helped her, too.”

As the Coleman-Franken election dispute grinds on, “valentine” copy (as Jacobs calls it) has poured out of news organizations from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to The Associated Press to The New York Times.

The coverage, of course, has not focused exclusively on Klobuchar’s sole-senator status, but it has provided an underlying narrative.

When Klobuchar appeared on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” in February, for instance, the first question Maddow asked was if Klobuchar’s “staff actually [has] tons more work to do because you are Minnesota’s only senator?”

Klobuchar appearing on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Feb. 16., and this reporter, have also referred on more than one occasion (see first sentence of this article) to the increased workload that the state’s lone senator has had to shoulder.

Riding the wave

This is not to say that Klobuchar’s position is not worth noting or that the amount of work she now has to tackle has been overstated. Klobuchar has previously reported that her casework has doubled and that her office is getting five times the calls that it typically receives — an increase that the senator has said required the recent installation of a new phone system.

The point is more that from a political strategist’s perspective, the situation has provided her with a national stage to showcase her work ethic, humor and equanimity.

“This has been an enormous burden on her staff,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “[But] it has put her even more in the spotlight than she would have been otherwise.”

And Klobuchar, for her part, has ridden the media wave like a pro, according to those on both sides of the aisle.

“She has balanced the needs of her party and the needs of her state quite well,” said Vin Weber, a GOP strategist and former Minnesota congressman. “She is a DFLer, but she still looks like a statesman. By not attacking [Norm] Coleman on partisan lines, she looks like a real leader and a mature presence.”

Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman agrees. “I have always appreciated the efforts of Senator Klobuchar to reach across the aisle to meet the needs of Minnesotans,” Coleman told MinnPost via email Tuesday. “I also appreciate that she has respected my desire to enfranchise more than 4,400 Minnesotans who have not had their voices heard or had their votes counted in spite of the additional burdens on her and her office.”

Democrat Al Franken also lauded Klobuchar’s efforts. “No one is better prepared to do double duty than Amy Klobuchar,” Franken told Minnpost via email on Tuesday. “Amy is one of the hardest workers I have ever met, and Minnesotans know that she’s been working overtime for them for the last five months.”

‘Klobuchar brand’
Still, there are some in the Democratic Party who feel that Klobuchar could have been a little more publically aggressive along the way in trying to get Democrat Al Franken into the Senate, according to a Democratic leadership aide who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly.

“She is so protective of the Klobuchar brand,” the aide said. “She is clearly at a point where she has decided that she doesn’t want to spend a lot of political capital on this, which is fine because there have been moments where she has stepped up to the plate. But, given her position and that her approval ratings are so high, she could have spent a little more capital than she has.”

Indeed, Klobuchar enjoys one of the highest approval ratings in the Senate. In March, the polling organization SurveyUSA found that Klobuchar had the fourth highest rating of the 27 senators that it tracks.

Sen. Klobuchar, right, chairing a Commerce committee hearing on her proposed "Cell Phone Consumer Empowerment Act."
Klobuchar, right, at a Senate Commerce Committee meeting. Minnesota’s sole senator is getting more and more national media coverage.

But if the polls are any indication, Klobuchar has been smart in her measured approach to the Franken/Coleman situation, according to an analysis by Eric Ostermeier, a political expert at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.
“Klobuchar has perhaps enjoyed greater success statewide in maintaining her support than some of her colleagues, particularly among independents, by seeming comparatively non-political in contrast to her past and (probable) future Gopher State colleagues, Norm Coleman and Al Franken,” Ostermeier wrote last month on his blog Smart Politics. “As Coleman and Franken fought through a brutal (and lengthy) 2008 U.S. Senate election, recount, and trial, Klobuchar has largely appeared above the fray and with her nose to the grindstone.”

Since joining the Senate, Klobuchar’s national image has also benefited from key committee appointments. And being an early supporter of President Barack Obama hasn’t hurt. In fact, rarely does a news article go by that doesn’t mention her combination of wit and composure and her potential to be a leader in the Democratic Party.

“Even if none of this had happened, you would still be getting a buzz about Amy as a rising star,” said Ornstein.

Or as Kathryn Pearson, a congressional expert at the University of Minnesota, put it: “Just because you are a single senator representing one state, that isn’t enough to make you a rising star. But she had already laid the groundwork in the last two years. So this has just helped, to some degree, to accelerate the process.”

But, given the choice, Klobuchar said she would gladly take a partner in the Senate this summer over more media buzz about going it alone.

“It has brought more attention,” Klobuchar acknowledged. “But, I would still rather that we have two senators.”

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 05/20/2009 - 10:23 am.

    Moreover, she has really grown with her tenure on the job. In the beginning I was critical of her, primarily because of her votes on Bush’s Military Commissions Act (indeed it was the very FIRST Community Voices article run by Minnpost). But as the years passed, she has gained confidence, independence and competence in her role. Given her age, experience and smarts…she will end of being and outstanding senator; a credit to our state; and no doubt have a bright political future ahead.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/20/2009 - 10:55 am.

    All this coverage has done is draw attention to what a great senator Klobuchar is — and not even half way through her first term.

    Part of the reason she was elected was fact she worked so hard.

  3. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 05/20/2009 - 10:57 am.

    Can anyone still do math? Without another Senator, she still has one-half the constituents of a New York senator.

  4. Submitted by Melissa Hansen on 05/20/2009 - 12:04 pm.

    I was in her office on business a couple of weeks ago and I was very impressed with her staffers and the senator herself. All very composed, but clearly managing a lot of legislative duties plus their responsibilities to help with things like adoptions, applications to military academies, VA complaints, etc. I learned a lot about all the roles the different staff play advocating for our state and that we are not only short a Senator, but a whole extra fleet of people keeping an eye out for legislation that impacts Minnesotans. I went to the Congressional offices too and of course they are all busy too, working for their districts.

  5. Submitted by David Brauer on 05/20/2009 - 12:14 pm.

    I wouldn’t call Amy an early supporter of Barack Obama. She was on the sidelines during the caucuses, and waited for a good while after that before endorsing.

    She’s cautious, sometimes to a fault, but her popularity seems as durable as anyone’s right now.

  6. Submitted by myles spicer on 05/20/2009 - 12:21 pm.

    Re her support for Obama, that was likely true at the caucuses — but my first exposure to Obama was at a Klobuchar rally in St. Louis Park. It was at a middle school in a gym, and I came with what I assumed was plenty of time to park and go in. What I did not expect was that I had to park about 6 blocks away because of Obama’s magnetism and amazing appeal — even BEFORE he announced he was running. It was then I know the Dems had something special in his candidacy. Adn, the speech he gave on her behalf was worth the walk.

  7. Submitted by Frank Bowden on 05/20/2009 - 12:28 pm.

    Senators are allocated a staff allowance according to the size of the state’s population. I doubt Amy has got an additional allotment due to the delay in seating Franken. Senators can spend their allowance however they want; so the actual number of staff people is not fixed. Clearly, however, Minnesota does not have has many staff people providing constituent support, researching legislation, etc. as it would with two Senators. We are also lacking full representation in committees and in floor votes.

  8. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/20/2009 - 01:31 pm.

    The biggest math problem here, Henry, is that Minnesota only has one vote in the Washington.

  9. Submitted by Matt Linngren on 05/20/2009 - 02:51 pm.

    Cynthia – great article… but didn’t I read the same basic article in Sunday’s Strib (and finally on today)???

  10. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 05/20/2009 - 04:54 pm.

    WOW! Another Puff Piece!

    Some “reporter” ought to ask Amy K how she is doing on keeping her campaign promises.

    1. Lowering the deficit
    2. Lowering the national debt
    3. Getting us out of Iraq
    4. And strictly adhering to pay-go

    Of course, she has “failed miserably” concerning these promises, but MN post does not remember, report, or ask.

    Not a mention of Nancy Pelosi and not a mention of Amy K’s promises to the people of MN.

  11. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 05/20/2009 - 09:51 pm.

    Some adjustments are made for population, but larger states still have to do more with less.

    I did the math based on 2004 data which I could find readily. All I could get was the lowest and highest amount paid to the Senators.

    Assuming each NY Senator is paid the most and Amy the least (and she wouldn’t be), the NY Senators received $2.54 per constituent they cover (each coverinig half) and Amy is paid $2.26 per constitutent, assuming she covers the whole state (no other Senator).

    Of course if she’s only sharing responsibility, she gets paid nearly double the rate that a NY Senator gets.

    I would think a curious journalist would at least ask the question, or do the math. I mean, Amy is a ok, even though I don’t share her politics, but at some point it does get a little ridiculous, like this whole “overworked” thing. Totally media manufacture. When has a Senate staffer not had to work hard. Now they just have something to blame it on, I suppose.

  12. Submitted by Steven Smith on 05/21/2009 - 06:31 am.


    Senator Klobuchar and her staff work hard and this is an important public service. But the political payoff is unusually high per hour worked. She is gaining all the credit for casework, gladly seeing every Minnesotan with business in the Senate, and reaping all of this sympathetic coverage.

    When does a reporter leave a statement–“given the choice, Klobuchar said she would gladly take a partner in the Senate this summer over more media buzz about going it alone”–unchallenged? She is just being honest, I think, but it is because the favorable media coverage is about to run its course…

  13. Submitted by T.S. Montgomery on 05/21/2009 - 08:30 am.

    That picture with Rachel Maddow makes Maddow look like she’s got a cleft pallet.

  14. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 05/21/2009 - 09:06 am.

    Senator Amy is the big winner from Coleman’s big pout.
    The fall out for the RNC, is
    the Republican party will have a very difficult time running any candidate against her.
    She is proving to everyone she can do the work of two men, and with one hand tied behind her back.

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