Amy Klobuchar, campaigning across Iowa in the first days of the New Year, told voters about a text a friend sent her after a surge in polls and fundraising.
“It had autocorrected by mistake, it said congratulations on your insurgency,” she said to laughs from a few hundred people gathered at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids. “I’m happy to take those words! That’s fine by me, and I think that’s what you’re seeing all over this state and all over this country!”
Klobuchar’s optimism may be overstated — the Minnesota senator is in single digits in nearly every state and national poll, including an Iowa survey released Friday by the Des Moines Register and CNN, and she trailed her main rivals for the Democratic nomination by more than $10 million in the fundraising quarter that closed Dec. 31.
But Iowa political experts say her day job representing a neighboring state, her Midwestern values and the work she has put into meeting voters in big cities and small towns in every corner of the state could result in a surprise payoff when Iowans caucus on Feb. 3.
A win for Klobuchar here doesn’t mean coming in first in Iowa, said Dianne Bystrom, director emerita of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. It means beating expectations.
“I think Klobuchar has a chance. People really like Amy Klobuchar,” said Bystrom, who is neutral in the race.
“She is down home, and she’s funny, and she’s got this quirky charm about her,” Bystrom said.
Klobuchar is not a soaring orator; she is plainspoken and earnest. Sporting a no-muss, no-fuss bob, she offers anecdotes about parenthood and being a woman in the workplace — complete with references to hiding her gray roots — that appeal to the suburban moms who can be key to elections.
Since the senator launched her campaign in February during a blizzard on the banks of the Mississippi River, she has counted on Iowa as the keystone to her path to the Democratic nomination.
She has headlined 161 events over 58 days, leading the major candidates, according to the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker.
She has visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, and along the way she has sipped hot cocoa with voters on her campaign bus in Rockwell City, mourned a shuttered ethanol plant in Crawfordsville, drank beer at a bar in Humboldt and gazed at stars at a planetarium in Cherokee.
Klobuchar’s message to voters here is that she is a pragmatic progressive with Midwestern, working-class roots and a record of accomplishment in her three terms as a senator, notably on issues important to Iowans. She helped shape three versions of the Farm Bill and has led legislative efforts on biofuels, ethanol and farm bankruptcies. The 59-year-old shuns plans promoted by her more liberal rivals such as universal student-debt forgiveness or free tuition.
“It sounds like a good deal on a bumper sticker,” she told an audience at a community college in Ankeny, adding that her plan would not provide free college for the wealthy but would increase Pell grants and direct resources to community colleges and historically black universities. “That is the difference between a plan and a pipe dream.”
Pam Wyant, 57, was so impressed by Klobuchar’s measured approach after seeing her speak in Johnston that she said she was strongly leaning toward caucusing for her.
“She’s reasonable. She makes sense. She’s a grown-up. She talks like an adult,” said the Des Moines trade show exhibit planner. “I think she can bring people together and I think that we need that in this country because right now, things are not working right.”
This moderate tack and her record, Klobuchar argues, makes her the perfect Democrat to take on President Trump.
“The Midwest is not flyover country to me,” Klobuchar told voters at a rally in Sioux City, saying she would confront Trump with that point on a debate stage. “I live here, and those people that you’re hurting with your trade war and with your oil waivers and everything else you’ve done to bring down the renewable fuels standard — they are not poker chips in one of your bankrupt casinos. They are my friends and they are my neighbors.”
That event took place in the most Republican swath of Iowa. Klobuchar is counting on her appearances in conservative places such as that to show how she can appeal to a broad base of voters, as she has demonstrated in Minnesota. In her Senate campaigns, she has won the reddest regions in her home state, including the congressional district once represented by archconservative Michele Bachmann.
“Thirty-one counties in Iowa voted for Barack Obama and then turned around and voted for Donald Trump,” Klobuchar told reporters. “Most of them are rural, most of them are the kind of counties and the kind of voters where I do well. When I’ve said that I don’t want to be the president for half of America, but want to be the president for all America, that’s part of what I was talking about.”
Soni Jelinne, a dentist in Sioux City, raised Klobuchar’s ability to appeal to Midwestern and Rust Belt voters at the candidate’s rally in her city. The 52-year-old said she plans to caucus for the senator because of her detailed plans, as well as her appeal in states such as Michigan that will be pivotal in picking the next president.
“We need someone electable, and I think she’s very middle ground, not too far right or too far left,” she said.
Klobuchar has also courted Iowa Democrats for years, campaigning for candidates, speaking at party gatherings and building relationships with politicians. That’s probably why she has the most endorsements from current and former Iowa elected officials.
“She has a hell of a lot of local politicians, and those people are influencers,” said David Yepsen, who spent more than three decades as a political reporter at the Des Moines Register. “The fact that they are seeing what they see in her — someone who can beat Trump by carrying rural voters around the country and at the same time governing effectively — that has appeal.”
Klobuchar’s problem, Iowa political observers say, has been the crowded field of candidates.
Aside from a tweet from President Trump poking fun at her for looking like a “Snowman(woman)!” because of the flakes that blanketed her head during her campaign launch, Klobuchar hasn’t received much attention from Republicans or her Democratic rivals.
But she is one of six candidates to qualify for Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate in Des Moines and has outlasted more prominent politicians, notably California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro.
Asked how she outperformed such candidates, Klobuchar sang the title verse of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” before turning serious.
“We had a sense of the long haul. I also knew exactly why I was running from the beginning,” she said in an interview on her campaign bus, sitting in her stockinged feet in a leather recliner after kicking off sensible black heels.
Klobuchar’s campaign is lean, so two $1-million fundraising boosts she received in the 24 hours after strong debate performances last year allowed her to double the number of offices and hire more than 100 staffers in Iowa and add to her efforts in other states, she and her campaign said. She’s now drawing the largest crowds of her campaign, including more than 500 voters in a steamy barn this month in Johnston, a suburb of Des Moines.
While the larger crowds and campaign infrastructure are improvements, they demonstrate how far Klobuchar has to go. One of her top rivals in the moderate lane, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, has roughly double the offices and more staff in Iowa, more than three times the support she does in the most recent Iowa poll, and has held several events in the Hawkeye State that attracted more than 1,000 people.
The consensus among political observers is that Buttigieg or former Vice President Joe Biden must falter for Klobuchar to progress. She will probably face an additional hurdle because she may be confined to the nation’s capital for days at a time during the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump.
Klobuchar is resolute, however. “We have enough to win,” she said.
Her passion and rationale impressed Jim Kelly, an undecided voter and retired college professor who attended a rally at an art museum in Waterloo. He came into the event 50/50 on Klobuchar and said he left at 82% in favor of supporting her.
“The one thing I want is somebody who’s got values that reflect the values of Iowa, and Amy does,” said Kelly, 77.
“Those experiences, they pay off big dividends, and she’s got that,” he said. “It wins hearts. And it wins votes.”