Can Amy Klobuchar really keep Minnesota for the Democrats?

A state the Democrats have held since the 1970s is now slipping away — and one candidate says she can save it

Andrew Naughtie
Tuesday 11 February 2020 12:20 GMT
US senator Amy Klobuchar steps into presidential race

With Joe Biden’s campaign apparently collapsing and Elizabeth Warren's showing signs of decline, the political narrative in New Hampshire over the last week began to centre on the rivalry between frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigeig. But in the primary’s last few days, someone else broke into the upper tier.

Arise, Amy Klobuchar, a longtime senator who just happens to hail from one of the most important states on the Democrats’ target list: Minnesota.

For all the talk about the so-called “blue wall” states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, namely Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Klobuchar’s home state is one of several traditionally safe Democratic states that slipped perilously close to turning red.

Top (or bottom) of that list is New Hampshire, which Clinton won by only 0.37 points — but Minnesota is second. Clinton defeated Trump there by just 44,765 votes, or 1.52 points. As the Democrats try and build an electoral college majority once again, that’s close enough to be deeply concerning.

It is especially so because Minnesota has been part of the party’s roster of safe states since Jimmy Carter won it in 1976. Since then, it’s contributed a couple of classic nuggets of electoral trivia: it was the only state Walter Mondale won in 1984 (alongside the District of Columbia), and, in 2004, one of its 10 electors turned “faithless” and cast their vote for “John Ewards [sic]”. Other than that, it’s never been the story, and its electoral votes have never been enough to tip the balance.

But thanks to Clinton’s near miss, its moment in the sun has come. The Democrats need to hold on to every state they can, and that’s before they pick up several others. And so, to Klobuchar.

Since the start of her campaign, she has consistently argued that winning three consecutive senate elections for her Minnesota seat proves she can hold on to or win back Midwestern swing states. That record does rather set her apart from the rest of the Democratic top tier: Pete Buttigeig has only won mayoral elections in a small city, in a state the Democrats look highly unlikely to win this year, while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders hail from Democratic home turf in Massachusetts and Vermont. And while much has been made of Joe Biden’s roots in Pennsylvania, his decades-long career was in tiny and ultra-safe Delaware, and his floundering campaign may not even get him through the looming South Carolina primary.

Klobuchar’s record therefore makes her uniquely appealing, and she seems well-placed to leverage it today. Political scientist and US politics expert Brian Klaas said: “Klobuchar is popular across the state,” boasting “approval ratings that reflect her ability to win over swing voters but also win over some Republicans”.

On the face of it, this was borne out by her re-election as senator in 2018, when she won 57 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and bested her Republican challenger by 24 points. But in fact, her performance somewhat ebbed even in a year where the Democrats did well nationwide — and more concerning still, her vote apparently shifted away from “Trump country” towards the state’s urban centres.

According to Klaas, this may not be enough in an election with Trump on the ballot. “For a Democrat to win in Minnesota, they need to do well statewide. They need to run up a substantial margin in the Twin Cities — the neighbouring cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul that straddle the Mississippi — but they can’t win just with cities.

“They need to have support in the suburbs, which are often swing districts but broke for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. And rural Minnesota is largely Trump territory these days, but soybean farmers in the south are being hit badly by Trump’s trade war, and many iron ore miners in the northeast Iron Range who voted for Trump come from union households that have voted for Democrats for generations.”

So can Klobuchar do it? Even beyond the so-called “home state advantage”, which has been the subject of decades of academic research, she has several advantages over Hillary Clinton: she isn’t trying to win her party a third consecutive term, she has relatively little baggage of her own, and she’s running against a controversial Republican incumbent.

But first, she has to win the nomination. And on that front, she has a ways to go. Heading into the New Hampshire primary, an Ipsos poll found that more than a third of respondents either don’t have an opinion about her or hadn’t heard of her at all. If she wants to lead the Democrats into Minnesota and elsewhere this November, she’ll have to raise her profile — and soon.

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