Klobuchar emerges from Minnesota primary with scars but victorious in push to quell Sanders’ progressive rise

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is drawing fresh scrutiny from Black activists as she's vetted to be Joe Biden's vice presidential pick.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar’s yearlong quest to become her party’s candidate for president may have ended abruptly Monday, but she has now emerged as a serious contender for vice presidential nominee after her full-throated endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden appears to have clinched her home state for him.

“We won Minnesota because of Amy Klobuchar,” Biden said during a speech at a Los Angeles rally.

Biden’s electoral fortunes shifted quickly heading into Super Tuesday, winning his first state less than two weeks ago in South Carolina, where Klobuchar’s support barely registered. By Monday night, Klobuchar, along with former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, endorsed Biden in Dallas, throwing their collective weight behind him try to stop Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders from amassing an insurmountable delegate lead.

With Biden’s win in Minnesota, Klobuchar has cemented her power in the state as the unquestioned monarch of Minnesota politics.

“Last night changed the game for Amy,” said Bob Hume, a former senior adviser to former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. “She was always a very popular senator with a strong standing. Now, she’s a political force of nature who is capable of clearly delivering for others. You cannot overstate the scale of what happened in the 24 hours between her endorsement and the polls closing.”

Able to pull support from all corners of the state, as well as some Republicans, Klobuchar has largely enjoyed high approval ratings as U.S. senator. Many pundits argued she could parlay that appeal nationwide, but her presidential campaign was hampered by a failure to win Black and Latino voters who flocked to Democratic rivals like Biden and Sanders.

Despite the newfound prominence, her first attempt at national office also brought with it tougher scrutiny that cracked the veneer of Klobuchar’s carefully-cultivated image of a “just folks” Midwestern Democrat who can work with people of all types.

Her campaign for the first time faced sustained and vocal criticism of her track record, especially from some Minnesota progressives who previously grumbled — but only privately — about her liberal bona fides. 

Javier Morrillo, a DFL strategist and former labor union leader who endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said Klobuchar’s positioning in the presidential race as an unapologetic centrist was a way to stand out from the crowded field — and also opened her up for criticism from the party’s progressive wing. 

“She really framed herself as much more aggressively centrist, more so than she has in the past,” said Morrillo, who pointed out that her voting record actually skews liberal.  “It really opened a space for people who have felt disappointed that she was not more aggressive or not more embracing of left positions.” 

Local Sanders supporters will no doubt blame Klobuchar for thwarting the democratic socialistist here. Their resentment could linger.

The test for Klobuchar will be whether she can repair relations — or if she even wants to — with the emerging base of the Minnesota DFL, which is younger, more urban and more racially and ethnically diverse than the party of her early career. 

A campaign spokesperson for Klobuchar did not immediately respond to a request comment.

Klobuchar began her longshot bid a year ago, competing against better-known and better-funded candidates. She was the popular senior senator coming off a commanding 2018 reelection victory. Her endless rolodex offered a steady supply of fundraising and political favors from the thousands of supporters she has won over after visiting all 87 counties year after year and paying particular attention to local issues, the needs of Minnesota businesses and constituent services. 

But some constituencies, particularly Black activists, have not felt quite as heard — a fact underscored by the disruption Sunday night by Black Lives Matter activists who crashed her final Minnesota campaign rally in St. Louis Park. Angry about her role in the prosecution of Myon Burrell, they renewed their calls that she drop out of the race after an AP investigation called into question her office’s handling of the case; the disruption caused the event’s cancellation

Her record as Hennepin County attorney was dissected further in back-to-back stories from The Intercept and The New York Times, which reviewed her office’s prosecution of immigrants and contrasted it with a less aggressive approach with police officers involved in shootings.

That prosecutorial record — once a political asset — may have contributed to her undoing in her presidential campaign, given the importance of Black and Latino voters in the Democratic nominating contest. 

But even before then, her campaign’s early days were marred by several accounts of Klobuchar demeaning underlings in an abusive work environment. A New York Times anecdote in which she forced an aide to clean a comb she used to eat a salad became a national punchline. The effect of the stories appeared to dissipate the longer she stayed in the race, however. She earned the endorsements of many large newspaper editorial boards, including the Star Tribune just hours before she dropped out of the race and most notably a shared endorsement from The New York Times.

Klobuchar also drew notice for her well known habit of remaining opaque on controversial issues. MinnPost reported on confusion about her position on copper-nickel mining near the Boundary Waters, among both advocates and opponents of the mine.

Gay marriage advocates also expressed frustration to MinnPost that Klobuchar was taking credit for the campaign to defeat the 2012 gay marriage ban amendment even though she was hesitant to join the fray until the last minute. 

For the first time, the scrutiny of a national run at last gave voice to some of these complaints from Minnesota progressives. Many were able to announce their allegiances to progressive firebrands like Sanders and Warren over their home state senator. 

“The more progressive flanks of the party have never been huge fans of Sen. Klobuchar,”  said Brandon Schorsch, DFL District 5 chairman, who is a Sanders supporter. “It’s not a point to tear her down, but she wasn’t the progressive wing of the Minnesota party’s choice for president.”

Schorsch said that the lack of contested primaries and her incumbency contributed to Klobuchar’s invulnerability in her party even as it has moved left.  “We haven’t seen her vetted from the left since 2006,” he said, referring to her first run for U.S. Senate.

It’s unclear if Klobuchar could face a primary challenge in her next Senate run. 2024 is still years away. With an eye to bolstering her standing at home, her campaign on Twitter pushed back on the idea that Klobuchar was at risk of losing Minnesota to Sanders if she stayed in the race, releasing an internal poll that showed her beating him by double-digit margins.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a top Minnesota surrogate for Sanders, walked back an initially terse response to news that Klbouchar had dropped out of the race, tweeting: “Congratulations on your participation.” He later tweeted a clarification calling her a “friend for over 20 years.”  

The cool tone of the now-deleted tweet might have reflected the fact that Klobuchar wasn’t only leaving the race, but would be throwing her support to Biden and making the case against Sanders. In an Tuesday interview with CBS This Morning, Klobuchar argued that a “socialist” like Sanders should not be the Democrats’ nominee. Clearly, many voters listened.  

Despite the disappointing end to her campaign and potential problems on her left, Klobuchar has emerged from the campaign as influential as ever, prominent Democrats said. 

Hume, the DFL strategist, tweeted his praise on Monday, saying Klobuchar “will continue to shine on the national stage for years to come.”

Indeed, despite falling short of the nomination, Klobuchar could still yet make it to the White House.

A Biden victory would put Klobuchar on a vice presidential shortlist, potentially putting her just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, serving with a man who would be 78 if he were inaugurated president.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.