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Amy Klobuchar deserves a closer look from electability-minded Democrats

A candidate with a history of winning — big — in the Midwest.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Loyola Marymount University on December 19, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Over the past year, I’ve heard from lots of Democrats who say they’re primarily interested in beating President Donald Trump. And if that sincerely is your interest, I hope you saw Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on the debate stage Thursday night.

In earlier rounds, Klobuchar tended to get lost among the other middle-of-the-pack candidates. She doesn’t have a goofy outsider message like entrepreneur Andrew Yang or billionaire Tom Steyer or House Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. And she doesn’t have a particularly distinctive ideological take.

But she’s done well enough in polls and fundraising to outlast the likes of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Cory Booker, and get up on stage alongside the more widely covered top four candidates. And while she’s not an incredible dynamo of charisma, she does have a kind of charming dorky Midwestern schtick. And best of all, she really does have a strong electability pitch.

Amy Klobuchar is good at winning elections

Making the case for herself, Klobuchar raised a key question at one point Thursday night for the candidates running: “Can you bring in those rural and suburban areas, particularly in the Midwest?” As a popular senator from Minnesota, Klobuchar’s answer is yes, she can.

The fear that haunts Democrats is that even with Trump unpopular, they could beat him by 3 or 4 percentage points in the nationwide vote total and still lose if he does well enough in the Midwest, specifically in Wisconsin.

Democrats don’t currently have a candidate in the field who has run and won in Wisconsin (though I think whoever wins should strongly consider putting Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin on the ticket as vice president for this reason). Minnesota is, of course, adjacent to Wisconsin. It’s a bluer state, essentially because Minneapolis is a bigger city than Milwaukee, and Minnesota has more college graduates than Wisconsin. But the sensibilities are similar.

All things considered, you’d expect any Democrat to do better in Minnesota than in Wisconsin. But you’d expect a Democrat who does unusually well for a Democrat in Minnesota to also do unusually well for a Democrat in Wisconsin.

And Klobuchar does very, very well in Minnesota. Consider the 2018 midterms, in which Democrats did well in statewide races across the board:

  • Keith Ellison won the attorney general race by 4 points.
  • Tim Walz won the gubernatorial race by 11 points.
  • Tina Smith won the Senate special election by 10.5 points.
  • Klobuchar won her Senate race by 24 points.

The point isn’t just that Klobuchar won in an only slightly blueish Midwestern state. It’s that she specifically ran so much stronger than Walz and Smith. That Ellison, a left-winger and a Muslim who was under a bit of a cloud of scandal at the time, managed to win by 4 points is testament to how big the blue wave of 2018 was. That Klobuchar so dramatically outperformed a standard Democrat like Smith is testament to how popular she is.

And her other races have been like that, too. Back in 2012, Obama won 53 percent of the vote in Minnesota. Klobuchar won 65 percent. Back in 2006, Tim Pawlenty narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent for governor in a race that also saw a significant third-party vote. Klobuchar won 58 percent of the vote in a landslide win that was also the narrowest of her three statewide runs.

Earlier this year, FiveThirtyEight computed a “popularity above replacement senator” score for every member of the upper house. It compares each senator’s home state favorable rating to the underlying partisan attributes of the state. Number one and number two are West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who’ve run and won in deep red states. Number three is Klobuchar — a Democrat who is just really good at making Midwesterners like her.

Biden voters in particular should pay attention

If you want a political revolution or to take a shot at imposing a wealth tax on America’s billionaires, then probably none of this is very persuasive. Fair enough.

But right now the leader in every poll is former Vice President Joe Biden, who is not promising either of those things. What he is promising instead is something much simpler — to beat Trump and restore basic competence and integrity to government.

If that message appeals to you — and clearly it does appeal to a lot of Democrats — you owe it to yourself to ask if Klobuchar isn’t a more effective vehicle for that message. She’s younger. She doesn’t have the specific baggage of having supported the Iraq War. She doesn’t have the specific baggage of Hunter Biden. Her policy ideas are broadly continuous with Barack Obama’s, just like Biden’s, and her pitch is electability, just like Biden’s. But unlike Biden, she has a record of winning landslide elections in a Midwestern state. You could do a lot worse than that.