Amy Klobuchar didn’t miss a beat.
With a two-word retort, she turned what was meant to be an insult into a compliment.
Her opponent in a 1998 debate for Hennepin County attorney called her “nothing but a street fighter from the Iron Range,” implying she was too scrappy and inexperienced to be running for a chief prosecutor job in the Twin Cities metro area.
“Thank you,” Klobuchar said, fully embracing her family’s roots in the iron ore mining region in northeast Minnesota.
Republican Sheryl Ramstad Hvass had just done her a favor — one that Klobuchar continues to cash in on, more than 20 years later. It’s how she won three elections to the U.S. Senate, and how she’s pitching herself in the crowded field of Democrats vying for the 2020 presidential nomination.
Klobuchar has never lost a campaign, and her victorious track record stems from her commitment to getting to places where Democrats haven’t always done well. That started in 1998, when she ran as the underdog and won by less than a point.
Her closest race
More than two decades before she stood in a blizzard earlier this year to announce her presidential campaign, Klobuchar launched her candidacy for the chief prosecutor of Minnesota’s largest county.
Klobuchar — then a Minneapolis attorney who had tried civil cases for two firms and prosecuted cases for the city — was up against the sister of Jim Ramstad, a sitting Republican congressman whose district included the Hennepin County suburbs. It was the first time two women competed for the office, which had a $24 million annual budget and 150 attorneys.
Ramstad Hvass, the president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, was 10 years older than Klobuchar, then 38. She touted her experience as a federal prosecutor, judge and public defender, telling voters she was prosecuting cases while Klobuchar was still in high school.
The daughter of a prominent columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Klobuchar also had a well-known name and a compelling personal story. After she’d been kicked out of the hospital while her newborn daughter was sick, she’d lobbied the state Legislature to change the law to guarantee new mothers a minimum 48-hour hospital stay. That story has become part of her presidential stump speech too.
Klobuchar refused to take donations from criminal defense firms; Ramstad Hvass did not. Klobuchar knew she would be outraised, so she challenged her opponent to a $321,000 limit on all campaign spending. Ramstad Hvass didn’t bite.
Still, Klobuchar found ways to get her message out. She was quick to launch a website, and her husband encouraged her to advertise on the internet. By late August, Ramstad Hvass still didn’t have a campaign site. Klobuchar couldn’t afford broadcast TV in the Twin Cities media market, so she saturated cable TV channels with a single ad made up of black-and-white still photos that emphasized her previous legal victories.
As a federal candidate, she’s continued to be strategic with advertising. When she had extra money in her Senate reelections, she advertised in southern Minnesota — a largely rural area where Democrats don’t usually compete. Those TV stations just happen to reach Iowa voters too.
Klobuchar made a play for the red suburbs and exurbs in 1998 just by showing up.
“She has made a specific point to go into the lion’s den,” said Ken Martin, the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who was a volunteer on Klobuchar’s 1998 campaign but is neutral in the presidential primary.
She ended up winning narrowly, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent, largely by bettering what DFL candidates typically got in the suburbs.
Even though she was running in suburban Hennepin County, which had about a quarter of the state’s population, Klobuchar kept an eye on the rest of Minnesota. In 2004 — then in her second term as county attorney — she volunteered to be a surrogate for John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the Gopher State, which helped her build statewide name recognition well before she ran for Senate.
Klobuchar’s record as county attorney, specifically her reluctance to prosecute police who’d been accused of using excessive force against black men, has come under scrutiny in the Democratic presidential primary. At the time, she was building a “tough on crime” résumé, which helped position her as a female candidate with law-and-order credentials.
She was planning to run for attorney general in 2006, but former Vice President Walter Mondale — a longtime Klobuchar mentor — told her to hold off. Soon thereafter, Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton surprised everyone by announcing his retirement.
Minnesota had never elected a woman to the Senate before, a drought party activists said it was time to end. Klobuchar wasn’t the only person, or even the only woman, interested in the open Senate seat. Her biggest feat that year may have been keeping potential primary opponents at bay.
“She had the most impressive work ethic of any candidate that I have ever come across,” recalled Martha McKenna, who was political director at EMILY’s List at the time. McKenna had been dispatched to Minnesota to sort out whether the pro-abortion rights group should back Klobuchar or Patty Wetterling, a well-known advocate for missing children. Wetterling had run for Congress in 2004 against GOP Rep. Mark Kennedy, whom Republicans rallied around as their Senate candidate.
Klobuchar raised more than $580,000 by the end of her first quarter in the race, sending a signal to other candidates. EMILY’s List endorsed her in September 2005.
“I quickly realized she’d built the political capital,” said Wetterling, who dropped out and went on to run for the 6th District again. Other primary threats dropped out or decided not to run.
Klobuchar easily secured the DFL endorsement for what was expected to be a competitive contest against Kennedy, who represented one of the GOP’s best hopes of picking up a Senate seat that year.
A good year
But with President George W. Bush deeply unpopular because of the Iraq War, the 2006 midterms came during a bad national environment for the GOP.
Klobuchar worked to tie Kennedy to Bush, whom he’d supported 97 percent of the time in 2002, 2003 and 2004, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. She leaned into her law-and-order background.
“I’m someone who puts people in jail for a living,” she said during a debate on “Meet the Press.”
Kennedy argued the Senate needed a certified public accountant in the chamber. His team tried to humanize him with ads that showed him with his family. But they had trouble breaking through.
“The voters had just turned off and the election was over months and months before Election Day,” said Dan Hazelwood, who worked with Kennedy on direct mail.
“It helped that she was a woman,” Kennedy pollster Brian Tringali said of Klobuchar. “Beyond that … I don’t think it was about her at all.”
Klobuchar ended up defeating Kennedy by 20 points. Republicans feel she got lucky with a favorable national environment. If it was luck, however, it kept running. She won reelection by 35 points in 2012 — a presidential year — and by 24 points in 2018.
“She benefited from that atmosphere, but she did more than just ride that wave,” said Jeff Blodgett, a senior adviser to Klobuchar in 2006. Democrats had won Minnesota at the presidential level, but the state was purple — with a Republican governor and senator at the time — and still is, Blodgett said.
“We underestimated her,” Kennedy political director Lonny Leitner acknowledged about 2006. Klobuchar showed up at Farmfest — a week after her second hip replacement — and held her own against the congressman, who’d served on the Agriculture Committee.
“That was something I don’t think we ever expected to see from a Minneapolis liberal,” Leitner said.
Klobuchar runs a “meat and potatoes campaign,” said University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs.
Democrats who have watched her in the state said Republican voters have gravitated toward her personal story, her authenticity and a sense that she tells it like it is. Specifically, she has long understood that mining, for example, isn’t just a job; it’s an identity and heritage — a perspective that was lacking from national Democrats in 2016.
“Amy leaned into her roots in the Range,” said consultant Pete Giangreco, who’s worked on all of her Senate campaigns and is a senior adviser for her presidential bid. “But most importantly, that she was going to be a senator for all of Minnesota.”
She’s built on that message in the presidential race.
“I don’t want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America,” Klobuchar said at last month’s debate.
If there’s proof of Klobuchar’s strengths as a candidate, it’s her margins in conservative parts of Minnesota. Despite Trump winning the 8th District — home to the Iron Range — by 16 points in 2016, and Democrats losing the seat last fall, Klobuchar carried it by more than 10 points in her 2018 reelection. But as Democrats have seen slippage in the Midwest, so has Klobuchar. Her margins last year in some conservative congressional districts were significantly lower than in 2012.
Before she can try to extend that Minnesota success nationwide, she has to win over the Democratic Party base.
“It would be unlikely,” Jacobs said. “But I never give up on Amy Klobuchar. No one is going to outwork her.”
This is the eighth installment in “Battle Tested,” a series analyzing early campaigns of some Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination. Earlier pieces focused on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and former Rep. Beto O‘Rourke.Correction Friday, 8:50 p.m. | An earlier version of this story should have stated that Minnesota had never elected a woman to the Senate — and not to statewide office — before 2006.