In her 12 years as Minnesota senator, Amy Klobuchar has worked to build a reputation as a quick-witted, hardworking pragmatist: She bills herself as the “senator next door.” Since February, she’s been trying to pitch that persona on the campaign trail.
Klobuchar says she’s electable. At 58, she’s on her third term in the Senate — elections she’s won by landslide margins. She won reelection in 2018 by a whopping 26 points over Republican opponent Jim Newberger, including in 43 counties that Donald Trump won in 2016.
She’s also known for retail politics. She visits all 87 Minnesota counties every year, a fact she is quick to tell reporters. And she can fundraise; she famously once got her ex-boyfriend to donate $17,000 to her campaign.
But she also faces clear challenges. On issues that the Democratic Party’s progressive base are prioritizing, such as Medicare-for-all or tuition-free college, Klobuchar is notably quiet. While other 2020 hopefuls like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have made it a point to sign on to major progressive legislation around health care and inequality, Klobuchar hasn’t. She’s earned a reputation as a moderate and has made a career of keeping out of the fights that will likely dominate the 2020 Democratic primary.
She’s also made headlines recently for allegations of mistreating staff, something that’s dogged her for years. In 2018, Politico used staff turnover data to include her on a list of “worst bosses in Congress.” HuffPost and BuzzFeed have quoted anonymous staffers describing her harsh and “erratic behavior,” like late-night emails berating them over small mistakes or misunderstandings. In one email, Klobuchar threatened to fire a staffer and included several colleagues on the chain. According to a HuffPost report, three operatives withdrew from the running to be her campaign manager because of her past treatment of staff.
Klobuchar is up against many of her Senate colleagues, including firebrands like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who have national name recognition, which she lacks. She has thus far used her candidacy to ask voters a question: Do they really want a revolutionary when they could have an experienced pragmatist like her?
Who is Amy Klobuchar?
Klobuchar grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, and went to Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School. Her family is of Slovenian descent (yes, just like Melania Trump, and yes, she jokes about that). She’s the daughter of schoolteacher and famous Minnesota columnist Jim Klobuchar.
Before the Senate, she was elected Hennepin County attorney, the Minnesota equivalent of a state prosecutor, where she fought to make drunk driving a felony. (Her father publicly dealt with alcoholism her whole life.)
In 2006, she won her first Senate campaign by 20 points to become Minnesota’s first woman senator. Six years later, when Republicans swept elections across the country, she won reelection with 65 percent of the vote, and she even won conservative rabble-rouser Michele Bachmann’s district. Her 2018 reelection bid wasn’t really considered a true contest.
Now she’s the top senator on the Rules Committee, and she played a big role in making changes so Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), the first senator to give birth while holding office, could bring her newborn onto the Senate floor.
But before Klobuchar’s Minnesota colleague Al Franken stepped down from his Senate seat amid allegations of sexual misconduct, Klobuchar was just known as the other Minnesota senator — the one who wasn’t on Saturday Night Live.
Her national moment came during Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony about sexual assault allegations against him. Klobuchar, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, got personal: Her father, at age 90, is still in Alcoholics Anonymous, she told the then-nominee, and she wanted to know if Kavanaugh had ever blacked out from drinking.
An angry Kavanaugh turned the question back on her. Klobuchar, shocked, responded directly that she didn’t have a “drinking problem,” prompting Kavanaugh to later apologize for his behavior in front of the Senate panel. Klobuchar accepted and moved on, cementing the moment as one of the most memorable exchanges of the confirmation hearings.
What are Amy Klobuchar’s policies?
Klobuchar is the kind of politician who likes to make a case for bipartisanship, even in a hyperpartisan era. Americans might feel more divided than ever, but she likes to brag that she got 24 bills signed into law under President Trump.
The bills are on issues like the opioid crisis and consumer protection, including banning lead in toys. Lately, she’s carved out a space on internet privacy issues. She’s making the case that Trump makes a lot of noise and that she is going to do the work.
When it comes to bread-and-butter Democratic issues, Klobuchar has a pretty standard record. The American Civil Liberties Union and groups that support abortion rights have given her top marks. The National Rifle Association has given her an F-rating.
In her presidential announcement, she said she would “reinstate the clean power rules and gas mileage standards and put forth sweeping legislation to invest in green jobs and infrastructure” in her first 100 days in office, and rejoin the international climate agreement on day one. She advocated for commonsense gun laws and closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.
But in a Democratic Party that has spent two years listening to a loud progressive base that’s called for big commitments like single-payer health care and eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Klobuchar has been noticeably quiet.
She hasn’t signed on to Sanders’s Medicare-for-all proposal. She supports universal health care and reducing drug prices more generally. Her views on trade are more middle-of-the-road. Her answer to college affordability isn’t free tuition but rather a student loan refinancing proposal called the Red Act. On immigration, she was part of a bipartisan group of senators who tried to reach a compromise with Trump. And as Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Booker compete with progressive bills to combat inequality, Klobuchar is touting a proposal she sponsored with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) that would allow people to use tax-advantaged savings accounts to pay for educational expenses like skills training.
Her candidacy has been focused on trying to make the case for pragmatism. The question is whether her vision, or the rising progressive wing’s vision, is where Democratic Party voters want to go.
“I don’t have a political machine,” Klobuchar said in the closing minutes of her announcement speech. “I don’t come from money. But what I do have is this: I have grit.”