WATERLOO, Iowa — At every stop in Iowa last weekend, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar reminded voters that she’s from “just up the river” and likes “to go south, to Iowa, for the winter,” even riffing on the title of her book, “The Senator Next Door.”
Klobuchar, one of two Midwesterners in the 2020 presidential race, is counting on that neighborly connection for a foothold in the first caucus state, which has a long record of supporting contenders from nearby. But the power of that link is being tested by a nationalized political landscape dominated by political celebrities — like former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, whose 2018 Senate run drew national acclaim from Democrats before he jumped into the presidential race last week and swung through Iowa at the same time as Klobuchar.
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Klobuchar and O’Rourke both headlined canvass launches here for a state Senate special election candidate, but only O’Rourke’s crowd was so large that it spilled out of the Black Hawk County headquarters into a parking lot, where the Texan spoke from a truck bed. Klobuchar attracted a standing room-only group of her own, but they stayed comfortably inside.
It’s part of a long shift in Iowa’s long famous living room-to-living room politics; voters are still vetting candidates in person — but the introductions are online. And it’s a major hurdle for Klobuchar’s presidential strategy of playing up her roots and success in the Midwest, where Democrats’ White House dreams were dashed in 2016.
“In the day of social media and CNN and MSNBC, what we find out about candidates is not dependent on the local newspaper on your doorstep,” said Kurt Meyer, chairman of the Tri-County Democrats of Iowa. “We’re much more nationalized these days.”
Klobuchar, for her part, said the neighbor talk is less about being able to “see Iowa from my porch — although that’s always fun to say” — and more about driving home to caucusgoers that she is the 2020 candidate focused on issues, like the farm bill and rural broadband, that “resonate in states like Iowa and in states like Wisconsin.”
“It’s the themes I’m talking about — about getting things done,” Klobuchar said in an interview with POLITICO. “It’s about coming from a different part of the country that felt overlooked” in 2016.
Klobuchar has paid close attention to Iowa since the last presidential election. Her frequent visits to the state — she was the first senator to drop in on the Polk County Democrats in Des Moines after the 2016 elections — and her work campaigning for candidates there in 2018 is “clearly her advantage,” said Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa), who attended Klobuchar’s meet-and-greet in Cedar Rapids on Sunday.
But “we are seeing these folks coming in a lot of times now,” Loebsack said, adding that “no matter where these candidates may be from, the main thing [voters] want is someone they feel will be able to beat Donald Trump.”
Klobuchar grounded her latest pitch to Iowans in pragmatic, bipartisan bona fides, including her record co-sponsoring bills with the state’s Republican senior senator, Chuck Grassley. Klobuchar has staked out the middle of the still-evolving Democratic presidential primary, declining to support free four-year college and touting support for a public health insurance option instead of an immediate transition to “Medicare for All.”
Primary voters are “tired of being duped” and “have heard time and time again, people say, ‘Oh, I want to do this, I want to do that,’” Klobuchar said. “You better be honest about what you think we can get done.”
That “more in the center” pitch resonated with Kallie Harris, a Republican who listened to Klobuchar at her Cedar Rapids event, saying that she’s “had it with Trump” and plans to register as a Democrat to participate in the caucuses. “I’m not interested in supporting her because she’s from the Midwest. I just like what I’ve heard, so far, from her,” Harris said.
Klobuchar even nodded to her star-powered competitors, telling a 100-person group in Dubuque that the state “[picks] people who you believe are the best candidate, not who has the most money, not who gets on TV for this or that.”
But so far, Klobuchar’s trips across the Minnesota-Iowa border haven’t translated into a statewide polling edge. The most recent Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll found Klobuchar clocking in at 3 percent support in March, the same number she held in December — before she announced her run for president. O’Rourke, who had yet to join the 2020 race when the latest poll was taken, was at 5 percent.
“If Midwesterners really preferred a fellow Midwesterner, then she would be killing it in the polls,” said an Iowa Democratic operative who is unaffiliated with any 2020 campaign. “But she’s not, even though she’s been here many times.”
Klobuchar called herself an underdog, arguing that there is “almost a year before these primaries, so there’s a year for me to build on the recognition I already have, which has been growing.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that “regionalism is mattering less and less in our politics,” but candidates “from the Midwest,” like Klobuchar and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, still benefit from a “strong appeal, particularly among swing voters.”
Both of them are trying to take advantage of being the only Midwestern candidates in the race, after Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown declined to run for president. Brown flirted with the notion on his “Dignity of Work” tour earlier this year but announced his plan to stay in the Senate earlier this month.
“Their Midwestern ties aren’t everything, but they can help them get from [the] second tier to the first tier,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic consultant who has worked with Brown. “There’s more of an opening for Amy or Mayor Pete, now that Sherrod’s not in it.”
Buttigieg said he found “an affinity in Iowa” and credited his home state of Indiana for shaping his “tone and style.” The mayor has also benefited from catching fire online — introducing himself not just through coffee shop stops in Iowa, but through voters’ social media feeds.
“Iowa is a really good place to try to beat expectations,” Buttigieg said. “It’s a place where you can catch momentum that will power you through for the rest of the campaign.”