MINNEAPOLIS — Sen. Amy Klobuchar leapt into the 2020 presidential race Sunday, becoming the first Midwestern state official to join the field taking on President Donald Trump.
The three-term Minnesota Democrat announced her campaign amid driving snow at Boom Island Park with a call to rebuild a “sense of community” in America, against the backdrop of the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed in 2007, killing 13, spurring Klobuchar and lawmakers from both parties to secure funding to rebuild the span in a year.
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“We are tired of the shutdowns and the showdowns, the gridlock and the grandstanding,” Klobuchar said in a speech to supporters. “Our nation must be governed not from chaos but from opportunity. Not by wallowing over what’s wrong, but by marching inexorably toward what’s right.”
Klobuchar used the nearby Mississippi River as a symbol for her “homegrown,” heartland campaign, and she has prepared a playbook for 2020 focusing on the type of Midwestern voters who have abandoned the Democratic Party — though not Klobuchar herself — in recent years. Klobuchar was reelected to a third term in 2018 with more than 60 percent of the vote, winning 42 counties Trump had carried two years earlier.
“I don’t have a political machine. I don’t come from money. But what I do have is this: I have grit,” Klobuchar said in the speech. “I have family. I have friends. I have neighbors. I have all of you who are willing to come out in the middle of the winter, all of you who took the time to watch us today, all of you who are willing to stand up and say people matter.”
Klobuchar was joined at the event by Minnesota’s top Democrats, including fellow Sen. Tina Smith, Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and several mayors, a tableau of home-state support that has not featured at every presidential launch so far. They helped Klobuchar deliver a message of national unity.
“We may come from different places,” Klobuchar said. “We may pray in different ways. We may look different and love different. But we all live in the same country of shared dreams.”
But Klobuchar was also dogged this past week by a series of news reports detailing the senator’s mistreatment of staffers, featuring former aides anonymously describing a toxic environment in Klobuchar’s office. Her defenders, including other ex-staffers, have pushed back on the criticism, suggesting that they are grounded in sexism. Klobuchar addressed the stories while speaking to reporters after her campaign announcement.
“You know, I love our staff,” Klobuchar said. “And yes, I can be tough. And yes, I can push people. I know that. But in the end, there are so many great stories of our staff that have been with me for years who have gone on to do incredible things. I have, I’d say, high expectations for myself. I have high expectations for the people who work for me. But I have high expectations for this country, and that’s what we need.”
Klobuchar has now joined an ever-growing and diverse pack of Democratic presidential contenders, including four female politicians, two black senators, a Latino former Cabinet secretary and an openly gay mayor. Klobuchar, for her part, became the first woman to serve Minnesota in the Senate when she was first elected in 2006.
She won praise and significant attention in 2018 for her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings, and she called for automatic voter registration and a slew of new environmental and campaign finance laws. But in a crowd of flashier candidates fighting over a left-leaning primary electorate, Klobuchar hopes to carve out an opening as a tell-it-like-it-is Midwestern pragmatist who can reach independents and moderates, as well as Democrats.
“As president, I will look you in the eye. I will tell you what I think. I will focus on getting things done. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. And no matter what, I’ll lead from the heart,” said Klobuchar, who served as the chief prosecutor in Minneapolis’ Hennepin County before she joined the Senate.
It’s a path that she won’t have to herself, however. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who also won reelection in a Trump state in 2018, toured Iowa last week as he mulls a presidential bid centered on the “dignity of work.” Former Vice President Joe Biden, if he ultimately joins the primary, would likely start with an advantage among the moderate Democrats who want a president to work across the aisle. And a few Western governors, including former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, also plan to pitch themselves as solutions-orientated candidates who don’t hail from the coasts.
“To succeed each of these candidates has to distinguish themselves, [and] that’s very hard to do when there are so many,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “Klobuchar can occupy a number of lanes, but she’s going to find company almost everywhere she goes.”
But Klobuchar does start with an edge in Iowa, where she’s a familiar face after campaigning alongside several down-ballot candidates over the years. She’s also a neighbor who has run up wide margins of victory in rural parts of her own state.
“People are looking for someone who not only can win the Iowa caucus, but who’s going to win the presidency and with her rural experience, which is the single most important thing Democrats can talk about here, that works here,” said Steve Drahozal, chair of the Dubuque County Democratic Party. “That’ll appeal to a lot of voters and it may get some folks who are on the fence, who went for Trump last time, back in our column.”
Klobuchar is scheduled to return to Iowa on Feb. 21, when she will headline the Ankeny Area Democrats Winter Banquet and Fundraiser. She will also make a trip to Wisconsin soon.
“We’re going to be in Iowa and in Wisconsin,” Klobuchar said. “I think we’re starting in Wisconsin because as you remember there wasn’t a lot of campaigning in Wisconsin in 2016. With me, that changes.”
Thrilling a Democratic base, which is tacking to the left, may not be an easy task for Klobuchar. In the Senate, she’s focused on lowering drug costs and protecting consumers, as well as a slate of other progressive issues. But she isn’t at the forefront on new policy goals popular with the left, like calling for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She hasn’t signed on to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care bill, instead calling for Medicare-for-all to be “considered” but preferring a “sensible transition.”
“For candidates whose brand is centered on pragmatism, demonstrating vision for big change is going to be a key early hurdle to clear,” said Ben Wikler, political director for MoveOn, a progressive group.
But last week, Klobuchar announced that she plans to support the Green New Deal, an environmental proposal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Several of the other 2020 contenders also quickly signed on to the legislation.