Senator Congeniality

Everyone wants to get along with Amy Klobuchar’s supporters.

Amy Klobuchar, at right, speaks near a railing with her hands up. To her left, people watch her underneath beer taps.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a campaign event at Barley’s Taproom on Tuesday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa—Over the course of the campaign, Suzy Forristall and her husband have been letting the basement rooms in their Council Bluffs house to campaign staffers who cycle in and out of the area. Pete Buttigieg staffers have one room, while Amy Klobuchar’s team gets the other. They share a bathroom.

Hosting them was all fun and games until Forristall had to make her decision on which candidate to support. When that day arrived, she brought snacks to the four Buttigieg team members who’ve lived in her basement, and told them that she had gone with Klobuchar, whose experience and legislative record gave her the edge.

“It was really hard,” she said.

There was a tactical way to soften the blow, though: reassuring the Buttigieg staffers that Pete was still her second choice. This wasn’t her simply offering them a participation trophy. The backup plans for Klobuchar supporters, with less than a week to go before the first nominating contest of the cycle, are a big deal.

At most caucus precincts, if a candidate does not reach 15 percent of caucusers’ initial preferences, the candidate is deemed not viable, and their supporters are free to flock elsewhere for the next round. With Klobuchar in the high single digits in Iowa polling averages, she has a significant bloc of support that, when redistributed at precincts, could help her more viable rivals—likely her fellow moderates. Klobuchar supporters are a hot enough commodity that rival campaigns have begun pitching schemes to the Minnesota senator’s campaign about how best to use their influence.

Klobuchar fans recognize their own importance, too. Of the likely caucus-goers I’ve talked to, Klobuchar’s backers are the most likely to automatically share their second choices without prompt.

Klobuchar, however, is not focusing on where her supporters should plan to land after the first alignment of caucus preferences. She is trying, in the last week, to convert her long-running pundit acclaim and recent slew of newspaper (semi-)endorsements into a surge to Iowa’s top tier. As a show of dedication to the cause, on Tuesday she became the first senator running for president to make a mid-week trip to Iowa after the day’s impeachment trial proceedings wrapped up.

“We had a little break in the trial,” Klobuchar said to a packed Barley’s Taproom in Council Bluffs, a city on the western end of the state immediately across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. “And I’m sitting there in the Senate floor, as I’m watching, and they go, ‘Oh, we’re done.’”

“I’m going to Council Bluffs!” she thought. It would be a quick trip, as she would have to return to D.C. for Wednesday’s session.

Klobuchar conceded she had not anticipated, when she announced her candidacy in a snowstorm last February, that she would miss most of the final two weeks of campaigning in Iowa—her most natural fit among the four early states—to sit in a Senate impeachment trial. She told the attendees this was probably the last time she would be able to see them in Council Bluffs. Depending on how the trial continues, she might not make it back to Iowa at all until Saturday, two days before the caucuses.

Though the impeachment obligations might frustrate her campaign plans, Klobuchar treated her day job as a juror differently than Sen. Bernie Sanders has during his rallies: She talked about it. While Sanders briefly mentions that he has been busy doing his “constitutional duty,” and then leaves it at that to get into discussing his platform, Klobuchar gave her crowd updates. She told them that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not have enough votes to block subpoenas of witnesses and documents, and that she’s been having interesting conversations about the possibility with her Republican colleagues. These were things, too, that her crowd wanted to know about. At Sanders rallies, attendees weren’t excusing Trump’s behavior towards Ukraine, but they treated the impeachment saga, with its outcome determined, as little more than a distraction—“high politics,” as one Sanders supporter told me over the weekend.

The personal and presidential shortcomings of Donald Trump—his lack of dignity for the office, his abuses of power, and his debasement of the public sphere—sit atop the list of concerns of many moderate Democratic voters, for whose support Klobuchar is competing with Buttigieg and Joe Biden.

“We’re trying to find a moderate,” John Behrendt, from nearby Dunlap, told me before Klobuchar spoke at the event. “As I see it, it’s a referendum against the president, and we’ve got to find the person that’s going to beat the president.” Klobuchar was leading Behrendt’s prospective candidate list, but, with typical Iowa caucus-goer judiciousness, he said he “wasn’t going to caucus for her unless I got a chance to hear her speak.”

Klobuchar appeals to moderates by telling moderates how she appeals to Republicans. Even her brief mention of how she’s been talking to Republicans during the Senate trial fits into the genre. She spoke, repeatedly, about her relationship with John McCain, and how she visited Ukraine with him. She told a story about a rancher in Minnesota who told her he had voted for Trump but regretted it, first after seeing Trump deliver a partisan speech at the CIA the day after his inauguration and, second, when he gave a political speech at the Boy Scout Jamboree (where Trump also reminisced about a party with “the hottest people in New York”). Economic issues are important, Klobuchar said. But for those Obama-Trump voters, just as important is a “patriotism check,” or a “decency check” for the nation.

Which brought her, eventually, to the necessary contrast. “We need to have a candidate that brings people with her,” she said near the end of her speech, “rather than shutting them out.”

And that’s why Joe Biden needs Amy Klobuchar’s supporters, too.