Belying moderate image, Klobuchar bills make her one of the Senate’s most liberal

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, flanked by his competitors for the Democratic nomination, has wide appeal across diverse communities.

WASHINGTON — As a presidential candidate, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar is regarded as a sensible centrist from the heartland who can appeal to moderate Republicans. 

But as a U.S. senator, she’s one of her party’s most liberal members — to the left of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a national icon of progressive politics.

That’s according to a recent ideological ranking by GovTrack.us, a nonpartisan organization that tracks government data and statistics.

Klobuchar ranked 92nd on the group’s annual conservative-to-liberal scale, which is based on the pattern of legislation that lawmakers cosponsored in 2019. 

That puts her to the left of most other senators — including Warren and other leading liberals like Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. 

Klobuchar is presenting herself as a moderate to “broaden her appeal” on the campaign trail beyond Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Steven Schier, a professor emeritus of political science at Carleton College in Northfield. “She wants to be an alternative to them.”

Still, he said, “The whole field is to the left of (President Barack) Obama.”

Rep. Dean Phillips, a freshman Democrat from the suburbs of Minneapolis who has endorsed Klobuchar, called her a “pragmatic liberal” who shares progressives’ objectives but is focused on how to achieve them during a time of extreme partisanship. “I think we need more of them,” he told the Reformer in an interview on Capitol Hill.

Neither Klobuchar’s Senate or campaign office responded to requests for comment. 

The GovTrack analysis does not take votes, stated positions or other factors into account that may affect lawmakers’ ideological stances, such as caucus memberships, media appearances, social media posts, endorsements in campaigns or their penchant for bipartisan friendship.

The analysis puts Klobuchar, a three-term senator who chairs the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, to the left of Minnesota’s other senator, freshman Democrat Tina Smith, as well as all other leaders in the upper chamber. 

To Klobuchar’s left are Sanders, presidential also-rans Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California, and a few other senators.

Other tools that use more traditional metrics to measure ideology, such as voting records, tend to put Klobuchar closer to the median of her party, said Tim Lindberg, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “In general, she’s a very solid Democrat.”

Klobuchar ‘looks liberal’ in the Senate

Throughout her presidential campaign, Klobuchar has portrayed herself as a pragmatist who “puts partisanship aside” to get things done and win elections. “Amy has won every race, in every place, everywhere, every time — including places President Trump won by more than 20 points,” she states on her campaign website

While she has staked out mainstream liberal positions on many issues, she has taken more moderate stances than Warren, Sanders and some other rivals for her party’s presidential nod on issues including education, the environment, health care and immigration, according to the Washington Post.

“She looks liberal when you’re looking at the Senate,” Lindberg said. “But when you’re looking at seven or eight major primary candidates, she’s in the middle or even in the right.”

For example, she supports legislation that would alleviate student debt but opposes the kind of widespread debt cancellation backed by Sanders and Warren, candidates in the “progressive lane.” Unlike Sanders and Warren, she opposes “Medicare for all” and instead favors an incremental approach that would build upon the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law enacted under Obama. Nor does she support a ban on fracking backed by Sanders and Warren or their proposed repeal of criminal laws against people who enter the country without permission.

Her rivals, she has said, make promises they can’t keep “just to get elected,” while she says her approach is effective — a claim backed up by some of the GovTrack rankings. In 2019, she cosponsored more bills than all but one other senator and got more bills out of committee and to the floor for consideration than most of her Senate colleagues.

But she gets mixed results regarding her claims of bipartisanship. She ranked second on a list of senators who introduced legislation last year that had a cosponsor from the opposing political party. But she ranked 67th on a list of senators ranked by the percentage of bills they cosponsored that were introduced by a member of the other party. 

On the other side of the Capitol, the state’s three House Republicans clustered toward the conservative end of the scale.

Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN)
SARTELL, MN – FEBRUARY 22: Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN) responds to a question at a town hall meeting on February 22, 2017 in Sartell, Minnesota. Emmer was asked questions ranging from health care, immigration, to education policy.(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

GOP Rep. Tom Emmer earned the state’s most conservative spot, ranking 63rd out of 437 lawmakers on the list (which includes non-voting representatives). The state’s two other House Republicans — Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber — were not far behind, at 80th and 91st, respectively.

Minnesota’s five Democrats, meanwhile, spanned the ideological spectrum.

Rep. Collin Peterson ranked 144th — the most conservative Democrat in the House and to the right of dozens of House Republicans — and Rep. Ilhan Omar ranked 429th, to the left of all but eight House members. In between were Phillips, who ranked 193rd; Angie Craig, who ranked 231st; and Betty McCollum, who ranked 398th.

“The Democratic Caucus really represents the entire country, which means that we have more diversity of perspectives and backgrounds and even objectives,” Phillips told the Reformer. “It doesn’t always make it easy, sometimes it’s messy, but that’s democracy.”