Klobuchar shakes up 2020 Democratic race in Iowa

Amy Klobuchar hails from a neighboring state, practices a pragmatic brand of politics, and sports a “Midwestern nice” persona — everything that should make her a formidable candidate for the Iowa caucuses.

And that might become a major problem for her new rivals who are also counting on a strong finish in the nation’s first nominating contest.

Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator, officially launched her presidential campaign on Sunday, becoming the latest Democrat to enter a primary that’s expected to be the most wide-open in a generation.

“I am running for every American. I am running for you,” Klobuchar said at a snowy rally in Minneapolis. “And I promise you this, as your president, I will look you in the eye. I will tell you what I think. I will focus on getting things done. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. And no matter what, I’ll lead from the heart.”

Polls indicate that even though she’s received less national hype than opponents like Sens. Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren, Klobuchar starts with a foothold in Iowa. One survey from December found Klobuchar with 10 percent support in the state, putting her in fourth place.

Other polls have found more modest support, but Iowa Democrats say they expect the Minnesota native to easily connect with voters there. Klobuchar, who joked that she likes to “go south for the winter” to Iowa, is scheduled to return to the state on Feb. 21 for a local party fundraiser.

“Unlike really everybody else in right now, she is a very well-known quantity here,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party who is unaligned and remains influential in the state.

When Republican Joni Ernst won an Iowa Senate seat in 2014, depriving Iowa of any Democratic senators, Klobuchar “really became our senator,” Dvorsky said, adding that she was speaking in a partisan sense.

“She spends a lot of time here, she’s done it for legislative candidates, federal candidates, she is just very, very well-known, well-respected, well-liked,” Dvorsky said. “Other than — if the vice president [Joe Biden] actually does get in — other than him, she has got the broadest familiarity with activists on the ground.”

Even if she falls short in other states, a strong performance from Klobuchar in Iowa would complicate the path to the nomination for other Democratic candidates.

Iowa has been an important launchpad for previous Democratic nominees, such as in 2008 when Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton. (Clinton would win the caucuses eight years later over Bernie Sanders.)

Traditionally, political operatives have said that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” meaning the candidates who place in the top three at the caucuses enjoy a jolt of momentum, while others face pressure to make up ground in the next early-voting states — or drop out of the race.

But what will increase the pressure even more in 2020 is the belief among some Democrats that the next nominating contest, in New Hampshire, could become a two-candidate race between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Warren.

Sanders, who easily won the state’s primary in 2016, represents Vermont. Warren, meanwhile, represents Massachusetts, where the Boston media market reaches deep into New Hampshire.

“It’s a factor that candidates are looking at, because historically, the next-door neighbor wins the New Hampshire primary,” said Jim Demers, the co-chair for Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire campaign who now supports New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Demers said he believes that Warren and Sanders both start with advantages in the state, which will create problems for candidates who need a win New Hampshire to overcome a disappointing finish in Iowa.

“Clearly, all of the candidates need to do well in either Iowa or New Hampshire, or both,” he said. “To do poorly in both states is going to make it very difficult to move on.”

But with a Democratic presidential field that is shaping up to be larger and more diverse than usual, strategists caution that the old formulas for success may no longer be relevant.

Iowa and New Hampshire, for instance, have a small percentage of Latino and African-American voters, unlike the following contests in Nevada and South Carolina. So a candidate expecting to perform well with nonwhite voters might be able to withstand poor finishes early on if they can later rebound in more diverse states.

Matt Paul, who spearheaded Clinton’s 2016 Iowa operation, said the definition of “doing well” in Iowa remains an open question in this crowded field.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily [top] three,” said Paul, who is advising former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the state, although not exclusively. “This is going to be a complex, intense race with a lot of peaks and valleys. To try this early to put together a formulaic scenario, I think, would be foolhardy.”

That said, some fundamental political realities still apply.

“It matters who wins Iowa, and it matters who does well and who the surprise is,” Paul said. “It seems that in a race that’s this crowded, this early, that there’s a likelihood that this race in its closing weeks could bring a surprise, that a candidate catches on, does very well, has a strong boost coming out of the state, which might not necessarily mean winning the state. Coming in second or third might be huge.”

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.
Katie Glueck is a senior national political correspondent at McClatchy D.C., where she covered the 2018 midterm contests and is now reporting on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Previously, she was a reporter at POLITICO, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as well as the 2014 midterms. Her work has also appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Washingtonian magazine, Town & Country magazine and The Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a native of Kansas City.