With an open-seat governor’s race, two U.S. Senate races, and four U.S. House contests that are seen as must-win races by both parties, Minnesota will be something like ground zero in this fall’s critical midterm elections.
Though Democrats are feeling good about their national prospects, Republicans see opportunities in Minnesota this November: President Donald Trump nearly won the state in 2016, falling to Hillary Clinton by just a point, and recent polling indicates he remains popular in the rural areas that supported him two years ago.
But one race is conspicuously absent from Minnesota’s electoral battleground: that of DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Klobuchar’s campaign for a third Senate term has barely registered on the 2018 radar, even as the senator takes on a more nationally prominent role, headlining talks and appearing on Sunday talk shows to advance her issues, like online interference in U.S. elections. As Democrats look ahead to the 2020 presidential contest, Klobuchar is frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for the White House.
The 57-year old Democrat and Plymouth native is the overwhelming favorite to prevail in what could be her third landslide victory. No big-name — or even medium-name — Republican took on the task of challenging her; the likely GOP candidate, state Rep. Jim Newberger, has raised the kind of money that would be considered weak for a U.S. House race, much less a Senate one.
In the eyes of the major election handicappers, like the Cook Political Report, Klobuchar’s seat is seen as a safe Democratic hold — putting it in the same category of competitiveness as races in the party’s deep-blue coastal strongholds. And this seat was considered safe even before the resignation of Sen. Al Franken added an unexpected, additional Senate race to the Minnesota ballot this fall, and offered Republicans a path to the Senate that doesn’t run through Klobuchar.
Simply, most top Minnesota Republicans — even if some on their side grouse about Klobuchar’s style of politics and claim she really is beatable — just don’t want to take her on. That the former Hennepin County attorney has placed herself above the political fray in a sharply divided state is no small feat in this political moment.
Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College, quoted the baseball legend Branch Rickey to describe Klobuchar’s strong political position. “He said, ‘luck is the residue of design,’” Schier explained.
“She’s been lucky, but she’s been pretty crafty, and she has exploited her luck.”
‘Strength breeds strength’
With Republicans feeling good about races in Minnesota and elsewhere, the idea of challenging an established, two-term incumbent like Klobuchar isn’t just unappealing to Republicans — it’s not even necessary.
But anyone who pays attention will tell you this: Klobuchar isn’t your typical two-term incumbent, and the luck of the draw is hardly the reason why her political standing is so strong.
Asked if Klobuchar would face a tougher road if her race was the main event in Minnesota this year, Jennifer Duffy, Senate races expert at the Cook Political Report, was unequivocal: “Nope,” she said.
Cook, which measures the competitiveness of all Senate races, rates Klobuchar’s contest in the “safe Democratic” category, along with races in 13 other states, nearly all of which are not purple states but states where Democrats dominate, like New York, Hawaii, and California.
“She drove this. Voters like her. They like the way she does her job. She’s very popular,” Duffy said. “It’s not a race.”
Klobuchar’s “strong numbers” are touted by anyone who makes the case for her untouchable status in Minnesota, and for good reason.
According to an April poll from Morning Consult, Klobuchar is the fourth-most popular U.S. senator, with a 60 percent approval rating and a 25 percent disapproval rating. The only senators to score higher than her represent two states with strong partisan bents: Vermont and South Dakota. The only purple-state senator in the top 10 was Sen. Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana.
The other numbers to consider — Klobuchar’s margins in her 2006 and 2012 campaigns — are the stuff of political legend.
Running for the first time in 2006, Klobuchar beat then-Rep. Mark Kennedy by a surprising 20 points. That year was a good one for Democrats, who romped to majorities in the Senate and House thanks to overwhelming opposition to President George W. Bush and the Iraq War, but Klobuchar turned what was expected to be a tough race against a legitimate opponent into one that national Republicans considered a lost cause by September.
Six years later, in 2012, Klobuchar notched a historic landslide win over Kurt Bills, a state legislator aligned with the libertarian wing of the GOP. She won with 65 percent of the vote, the highest vote share by a Senate incumbent in Minnesota since Hubert H. Humphrey won with 67 percent in 1976.
In 2012, Klobuchar carried all but two of Minnesota’s 87 counties, and every single congressional district, even the 6th District, then the territory of arch-conservative Rep. Michele Bachmann, with 58 percent.
Kyle Kondik, an analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics — which also rates Klobuchar’s race as a safe Democratic hold — said Klobuchar’s current strength is something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Sometimes strength breeds strength, in that, if you show yourself to be electorally strong, that dissuades strong Republicans from running against you,” he said. “She’s taking care of her business, generally speaking, her numbers are good, and that dissuades strong challengers, which makes her even stronger.
Even a strong challenger — someone like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is running again for governor — might not even defeat Klobuchar at this point, Kondik says. “[Pawlenty] would raise real money, campaign vigorously, he’d probably knock down her margin some. He’s probably not going to do that, because he says, ‘I’m not going to have a chance to win.’”
Jeff Blodgett, a veteran DFL operative and top aide to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, says Klobuchar’s “presence as the senator and candidate, to some extent, gives the wrong impression that Minnesota is a safe blue state, when it really isn’t… which makes her standing all the more remarkable.”
Just doing her job
Klobuchar, however, is not acting as if she’s taking a third term for granted, and has outraised even some Senate colleagues who have legitimately tough races ahead of them. She has hauled in over $9 million for her 2018 campaign and has $6 million in the bank according to her last report.
As she has done every year in office, this year, Klobuchar plans to visit each of Minnesota’s counties; at the state’s DFL conventions, Klobuchar’s green and blue campaign signs — “Our United States Senator,” they read — adorn the walls as if her campaign is 2018’s main event.
Klobuchar’s answer for the secret of her success is no shocker: “My strategy is really simple,” she told MinnPost. “It’s just to do my job. I just keep working. I don’t ever think, things are looking OK. I think, what can I do to advance my bill that’s been dormant?”
The senator’s relentless — if obsessive — work ethic is the common thread when colleagues, operatives, and former staffers explain the key to Klobuchar’s continued success. Getting to the Senate, much less staying there, takes hard work. But Klobuchar’s drive — marked by an ability to seemingly be everywhere at once — stands out even in D.C.’s sea of strivers.
Rep. Tim Walz, the 1st District Democrat currently running for governor, says Klobuchar has an “unrivaled” work ethic. “She’s just an engine that will not quit. She goes everywhere, she is everywhere,” Walz told MinnPost.
He said it was more noteworthy when Klobuchar failed to appear at an event, even a minor one, in his southern Minnesota district. “Now, seeing it as a statewide candidate, to understand what she did, I’m trying to wrap my mind around it… Showing up at these dinners, you have to maintain those activists who are out there, who will be knocking on doors. Those are hard after a long day, spending three hours at the Burton Dinner in Mankato. She does it.”
Klobuchar acknowledges the occasionally drastic lengths she goes to in order to maintain her presence in the state. One year, she planned to make it to the anniversary celebration for the town of Tenney, which sits near the North Dakota border in northwestern Minnesota.
“I couldn’t attend, because I was in Washington,” Klobuchar said. “I called every person in the town to tell them I couldn’t come.” Tenney’s population, per the 2010 census, is five people.
That constant work and travel might seem excessive. But it’s essential to grasping Klobuchar’s popularity, and power.
“She’s tireless,” Blodgett says. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the whole Senate that works harder than she does. She’s all over every big issue the state is facing, even to the smaller issues, and people know that.”
‘Standing ground’ and finding ‘common ground’
But tireless work doesn’t guarantee victory, much less 30-point victory margins. Observers say that Klobuchar’s carefully practiced brand of politics — which avoids controversy in favor of compromise — is as big a reason for her enduring success in Minnesota as much as anything else.
With few exceptions, Klobuchar is a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate, and rarely has good things to say about Trump, or the various policy proposals the GOP majority has put forward, from the tax bill to the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She boasts sterling ratings from key liberal interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group.
Some make the case that her voting record is to the left of Minnesota’s political center. Eric Ostermeier, a University of Minnesota political scientist who runs the Smart Politics blog, says “one would think she might take a greater electoral hit among conservative-leaning Minnesota residents… instead she usually seems to remain above the fray and thus maintains some of the highest approval marks in the land for the office.”
The senator has sought to define herself — and stay above the fray — by focusing on issues where she believes bipartisan cooperation, and getting something done, is possible. It’s an approach her supporters say has helped her reach broad popularity in Minnesota, and it’s also something her detractors use to claim that she lacks backbone.
Klobuchar says she’s had a “few lives” in the Senate with varying focuses over time, but she says the constant has been that she “works in the middle… I’m willing to stand my ground, and find common ground.”
Carleton’s Schier says that Klobuchar specializes in issues where most want the same outcome. “Her issue selection has been such that she doesn’t court controversy,” Schier says.
Two of her recent signature issues have been countering foreign election meddling and human trafficking. In the past few months, Klobuchar has been a lead advocate for tougher rules governing disclosure of political ads that appear online, with the aim of making it harder for countries like Russia to interfere in U.S. elections. (Her bill, called the Honest Ads Act, was recently endorsed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.)
The frequent updates from Klobuchar’s press office also reveal a relentless focus on dozens of parochial issues, from protecting the Great Lakes from invasive carp to maintaining current federal standards for corn-based ethanol fuel to improving cell service in rural areas. More often than not, a Republican’s name appears alongside hers in the release.
Not always above the fray
When Klobuchar does wade into political controversy and congressional fights, it’s often to carry the banner of bipartisanship. Occasionally, that’s earned her criticism from her left.
When the federal government shut down in January over Congress’ inability to compromise on a solution for the young, undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, Klobuchar was a leading member of the so-called “Common Sense Caucus” that brokered an end to the impasse, setting up a Senate immigration debate that failed to produce any resolution for the Dreamers.
That episode deeply angered some corners of the DFL base: on February 28, a group of protesters staged a sit-in at Klobuchar’s Minneapolis office building, demanding she support a “clean” piece of legislation to grant Dreamers legal status. Activists explicitly targeted Klobuchar because of her role brokering the shutdown compromise.
Beyond that, some of Klobuchar’s votes on Trump Cabinet appointees also disappointed progressives. Notably, she voted in favor of conservative Kansas congressman Mike Pompeo’s nomination to head up the CIA. (Klobuchar did not vote in favor of Pompeo in April after Trump nominated him for Secretary of State.)
Some Minnesota Republicans argue that Klobuchar usually shies away from hot political topics to protect her carefully-managed image — a derisive nickname for her in some circles is “the Senator of Small Things.” Luke Hellier, a GOP operative and former staffer to Rep. Erik Paulsen, says Klobuchar’s bread-and-butter is “little, smiley-face kind of things.”
“She does just enough to not make people mad,” he says. “What she says back home is different than what she tells her pals in D.C. … She definitely knows how to mold her image to be liked at home.”
Klobuchar’s response is that her work on issues like tackling privacy and the opioid epidemic, which require taking on big tech and pharmaceutical companies, are not small things. “I look at those things as major, major issues of our time,” she said.
“However you work to improve people’s lives isn’t a small thing,” she said, mentioning bills she helped pass to help families adopt and to improve treatment for eating disorders. “Those things add up.”
One veteran DFL operative frames that incremental quality of Klobuchar’s work as “succeeding by succeeding:” she’s able to identify areas where she can get something done — from leading a push against faulty car airbags to toughening pool drain safety standards — and then does it again, and again.
It’s earned her plenty of admirers. “I don’t know how to articulate it,” Walz says. “She has an uncanny ability to assess situations…. She is always skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.”
Though they may criticize Klobuchar and complain that the media gives her a free pass — Hellier claimed a recent report that Klobuchar’s office had the highest staff turnover in the Senate went unnoticed by the local press — Minnesota Republicans usually have good things to say about Klobuchar.
In her, Minnesota’s GOP members of Congress have often found a willing co-sponsor and collaborator, enabling all involved to brand their work with that valuable “bipartisan” label. Klobuchar and Paulsen have frequently partnered on anti-trafficking and anti-drug measures; she and 6th District GOP Rep. Tom Emmer are collaborating constantly in pushing greater openness toward Cuba.
The only type of GOP candidate who could beat her, Hellier says, would have to have high name identification, the ability to raise a lot of money, and have some kind of outsider profile. He mentioned Matt Birk, the former Baltimore Ravens player and Minnesota native, as someone who fits the bill.
The likely GOP candidate in 2018, state Rep. Jim Newberger, does not check any of those boxes. A paramedic and native of Sherburne County, Newberger says he’s running to restore “balance” to the Minnesota delegation and argues that Klobuchar actively carried out an extreme-left agenda. (Klobuchar won Sherburne County by 15 points in 2012.) The Trump-backing Republican, according to his latest available campaign finance report, has $11,000 in campaign money on hand. (Newberger did not respond to a request for comment.)
Klobuchar’s Senate colleagues in purple states, however, have drawn some strong challengers who are tarring incumbents as creatures of the Washington establishment. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who’s held his Florida seat with ease since 2001 — using a similar, controversy-averse playbook to Klobuchar — is being challenged by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is alleging Nelson is a do-nothing Beltway insider.
The U of M’s Ostermeier says such attacks fall flat against Klobuchar: “Despite her record, she has not become a go-to target like other higher profile ‘Washington liberals’ who conservatives frequently vilify… attempts to do so by her Republican opponent in the 2018 cycle likely won’t quite ring true to the average voter.”
With the Minnesota GOP’s shallow bench of viable statewide candidates — much less one that could make a credible case against her — the consensus is that this seat is Klobuchar’s, as long as she wants it. (The senator is coy about any ambitions for higher office, always declaring her focus on her work for the people of Minnesota.)
Election day 2018 is likely to confirm that Klobuchar is a rare figure in U.S. politics in the age of Trump: the popular, purple state senator, a self-defined progressive but also a common-sense compromiser, whose victory margins speak for themselves.
In a political moment in which the Klobuchar style of politics — the earnest emphasis on decency, civility, and getting things done — seems to be out of fashion, the senator argues it’s more important than ever.
“In a time when people are so distraught about polarization, they feel they can’t trust government, part of my principles and values of finding common ground, I feel that’s a mission in and of itself,” Klobuchar says.
“I really think people want to see a check and balance. They want to see someone who is able to get through the mess and get things done.”