(Bloomberg) -- By saying no, Amy Klobuchar hopes she’ll be able to convince voters to say yes to her 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.
The Minnesota senator is pushing back against some policy ideas favored by the party’s ascendant progressive wing and championed by several of her competitors in the race. She’s thrown cold water on the idea of free college and called the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all more aspirations than realistic goals in meeting the challenges of climate change and health care.
Klobuchar is betting that bucking the emerging party orthodoxy will pay dividends in a field already crowded with a dozen candidates that’s almost certain to grow in the coming weeks. Virtually all of those in the race so far are positioning themselves to the left of Klobuchar.
The middle of the road could give her traction in Iowa, which will host the first nominating contest in about 11 months. Iowa’s Democrats have a history of giving an early boost to populist progressive candidates before ultimately landing on more centrist ones when they get to the caucuses.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who announced his second presidential bid earlier this week, is something of an exception to the rule. The self-described Democratic socialist finished in a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucuses.
“Electability is going to be huge and that tends to moderate people’s choices,” said Jerry Crawford, a prominent Iowa Democrat. In 2004, he was the state chairman for Senator John Kerry, who defeated that year’s progressive sensation, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. It was an outcome that inspired a phrase still used to describe the tendencies of caucus-goers to ultimately pick moderates: “Date Dean, Marry Kerry.”
“Klobuchar literally reeks, in a good way, common sense and I think that is going to be a very helpful attribute for anyone who can muster that in competing against this White House,” Crawford said.
In 2016, Iowa caucus entrance polls showed 68 percent of Democratic participants viewed themselves as liberal, while 28 percent said moderate and four percent conservative. With so many competitors, securing a large portion of the moderate vote could be helpful in assembling a winning strategy.
Democrats are now more interested in choosing someone they think that can beat President Donald Trump than a candidate who aligns perfectly with their policy views, according to recent national polling. For their part, Trump and the Republican National Committee are trying to paint the entire 2020 Democratic field as a pack of socialists.
As she makes her case for electability, Klobuchar is trying to balance pragmatism with party purity, and not to be drawn too far to the left on causes popular among the progressive base that could hurt her in a match-up against Trump.
Klobuchar has declined to promise free four-year college, but has called for free community college and other ways to make higher education more affordable. She’s expressed an openness to Medicare-for-all at some point, but has also said it’s not immediately practical and other options to make health care more accessible should be pursued first. And she’s called goals outlined in the proposed Green New Deal “aspirations,” while pledging to restore several Obama-era environmental initiatives.
During her appearance at a union hall Thursday evening in Des Moines, Klobuchar highlighted her ability to win in places that had gone for Trump in 2016.
“I won in a bunch of Trump counties,” the three-term senator said during her second visit to the state as a presidential candidate. "I believe you go not just where it’s comfortable, but where it’s uncomfortable."
While she has the centrist lane mostly to herself for now, that could soon change. Other potential candidates who may be sharing that space include former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Montana Governor Steve Bullock. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
In making her case, Klobuchar is stressing her ability to win in rural areas and the Midwest. Trump’s victories in Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan were crucial to his election in 2016. In her 2018 re-election, Klobuchar carried 42 Minnesota counties that had backed Trump two years earlier.
Progressives express skepticism about Klobuchar’s candidacy. “I think it is exceedingly unlikely at this point that someone like Senator Klobuchar and the kind of campaign she seems to be intent on running is going to go very far in a party that is looking for a lot more than just not Donald Trump,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the activist group Democracy For America.
Another potential cloud hanging over Klobuchar are reports of high staff turnover in her office because she’s an exceptionally demanding employer.
One major advantage she will have in Iowa is proximity to her home state. In fact, Interstate Highway 35 could be viewed as one of her biggest assets before the Iowa caucuses.
The north-south roadway runs from Minnesota into Iowa and will offer her campaign and volunteers from Minnesota quick access. The two states share two media markets, so coverage of Klobuchar in Minnesota has long overlapped into northern Iowa.
The most recent Democratic presidential contender to enjoy neighbor-state status to Iowa was Barack Obama. As the then-junior senator from Illinois, Chicago served as his home base and allowed for quick travel to Iowa in 2007 and early 2008.
He benefited especially in eastern Iowa from media coverage of him in western Illinois markets that cross the Mississippi River. From the earliest stages of Obama’s campaign, he placed an intense focus on Iowa, knowing that a victory there -- something he ultimately achieved -- would establish him as a real nomination threat to Hillary Clinton.
While neighboring state status will bring advantages for Klobuchar, it will also carry additional burdens. Expectations for her will be higher in Iowa because she’s a neighbor and failure to finish in the top tier could prove seriously detrimental to her campaign as the race shifts to the east and south.
Klobuchar lifted expectations herself for her Iowa finish as she talked to reporters after Thursday’s event. "I would certainly like to finish in the top three," she said.
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