Amy Klobuchar declares
ASKED IF she is tough enough to take on President Donald Trump as president, Amy Klobuchar—a senator long known as the epitome of Minnesotan nice—refers to the heavens. “I’m tough enough. I would have liked to see him sitting out here in the snow for an hour giving this speech,” she says. If she didn’t quite call the president a wuss, the implication was clear to reporters standing by with ice on their necks.
A little later Mr Trump mocked her, casting doubt on the existence of climate change after he noticed snow on Ms Klobuchar’s bare head in Minnesota. His grasp of climate science may be poor, but Ms Klobuchar’s team revelled in the fact that he had paid attention. It had snowed heavily on her presidential launch party, which she held in a park on an island in the Mississippi River. Grey clouds obliterated what should have been a striking view of the skyline in Minneapolis.
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Her supporters and warm-up speakers relished the bad weather, repeatedly joking that a little blizzard counts as a balmy spring day up north. Two supporters showed up on Norwegian cross-country skis; another pair stomped about happily in snow shoes; dogs came wrapped in bright-coloured winter gear. Amid crackling fires, mugs of hot cider and folksy good cheer, the senator pulled off a memorable show.
Is she a strong enough for this spark to spread? Just as it is hard to kindle a fire in wet snow, she could struggle to generate much heat or light in a busy Democratic field. She is not from a rich family and nor is she backed by big donors, most of whom are found in cities on the coasts. In a brief chat with The Economist, she says “I don’t pretend that I’m the one with all the money right now”, but [..] “we will raise the money that’s necessary—once people see me out in the snow I don’t know how they can’t help but give me money.”
Money is not her only problem. As a quietly industrious toiler, and sometimes dull speaker, she is not widely known. In her third term in the Senate she has passed more legislation than most—she has reportedly backed 24 bills that became law since Mr Trump became president. That record points to her skill in engaging other senators, including Republicans. She is not a polarising figure. But how many voters will care? Almost the only moment when she grabbed public interest recently was when she quizzed Brett Kavanaugh over his drinking at a hearing for his appointment to the Supreme Court in September. Moments of dramatic confrontation earn most attention. Compromise, sadly, wins little.
She has some other disadvantages at the moment. Younger or more strident Democrats stir up primary voters by promising universal health care quickly. She talks more carefully of that as an eventual goal. Some want to abolish a border control agency, ICE, whereas she sensibly refers to welcoming migrants and ending hatred towards foreigners. She does mention unions and cutting the impact of money on politics, but she is undoubtedly more centrist than many. That could be a winning position come the general election. But her immediate problem is winning attention and support in her own party’s primary.
She may also find herself boxed in. Were Joe Biden to run, he could draw support of many blue-collar Midwesterners unexcited by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sherrod Brown, a senator for Ohio, might charm the same constituency. Others are likelier than Ms Klobuchar is to appeal to crucial African American voters. Apart from a few Somali-Americans, the crowd and her fellow speakers in Minneapolis were strikingly monochrome. Others, such as Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, could just as easily excite those who want to elect the first female president. For those tired of septuagenarian leaders in America, candidates younger than the 58-year-old Ms Klobuchar may be more thrilling.
Despite that, do not write off Ms Klobuchar. She combines a wonkish seriousness with easy joke-making in a way that has broad appeal. She was the first woman elected Senator in Minnesota, in 2006, and has won each victory by impressively large margins over serious opponents. She does well in rural areas, including winning in 2018 in 43 counties that Mr Trump took heavily in 2016. Less surprisingly, she does well in the usual urban Democratic strongholds.
Ms Klobuchar has a decent story to tell voters, if only they would pay attention. Her family forebears include migrants from Slovenia, a mineworker who slogged away in north Minnesota, a school teacher and a local journalist (her father, who was an alcoholic). She offers an appealingly modest contrast to a swaggering billionaire.
It helps, too, that she has already been a fairly frequent visitor to neighbouring Iowa, campaigning for fellow Democrats in territory that is a similar mixture of farming, industry and growing cities to that found in Minnesota. It is possible that her consensual, centrist demeanour will go down well with many Iowans. If polls there, and in turn caucuses next year, show the Minnesotan is popular in the Midwest, then her name recognition and money problems could ease.
What of adversity? Ms Klobuchar is not much tested yet. She got some bad press in the past week over her treatment of her staff. Reportedly she can be a mean boss and a tiresome taskmaster, which makes it hard for her to retain people. That could prove problematic, but voters probably don’t care. It would be worse, surely, if Ms Klobuchar were seen as just a timid Midwesterner unready for the bruising clashes of a national campaign. She talks up her grit and will to win. Being called an over-demanding boss probably helps with that.
The main point in Ms Klobuchar’s favour, though, is how highly she scores on measures of electability—an effort to quantify a candidate’s electoral success when allowing for national trends, the benefits of incumbency and other factors. In 2018, when she was re-elected as one of Minnesota’s senators, she performed vastly better in the state than Hillary Clinton did two years earlier. Ms Klobuchar even won the two House districts in Minnesota that voted Democrat in 2016 and then Republican in 2018. Look at the map of where voters who switched from Obama to Trump in 2016 and you will see a high concentration in the Midwest. This suggests that of all the candidates so far declared, Mrs Klobuchar is the opponent Mr Trump would least like to face. If that is the most important consideration for Democratic primary voters, Ms Klobuchar should be taken very seriously.