Amy Klobuchar’s bid to prove she’s the most electable of the Democratic presidential aspirants began with a message to voters in this swing state Saturday: She’ll get right what Hillary Clinton got wrong in 2016.
In a symbolic departure from the usual path through early-voting states, the Minnesota senator made a coffee and bicycle shop in western Wisconsin her first campaign stop after announcing her bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination. She told a packed-in crowd she planned to “go to places that maybe we didn’t focus on enough in the last few years.”
A day earlier, Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman now weighing a run for president, made two stops at colleges in Wisconsin.
“I want to make sure that I’m listening to everyone — not just those that I know in El Paso and in Texas, but everyone, including going to places that are forgotten or overlooked or have not been visited enough or are only thought about in calculations as you accumulate electoral votes or you think about the next election,” he said Friday in Madison.
Klobuchar and O’Rourke never used Clinton’s name. But their visits were an implicit rebuke of Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
President Donald Trump cracked the “blue wall” of traditionally Democratic states long viewed as essential to the party’s path to the presidency — winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — and Clinton’s campaign was faulted for spending too little time and money on the latter two. The most straightforward path to a Democratic victory in 2020 goes through those three states: The party would win the White House by reclaiming all three and holding onto the other states Clinton won.
And last year’s midterm elections have given Democrats hope that the party can rebound from Clinton’s losses. Democratic candidates went six-for-six in races for governor and the Senate in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania last year — a run that included ousting Wisconsin’s two-term GOP Gov. Scott Walker.
“I want to build on the momentum that we saw here in 2018,” Klobuchar told reporters Saturday. “No one ever thought that the Democrats were going to be able (defeat) Gov. Walker, but we did it, and we did it in a smart, Wisconsin way with a grassroots campaign with (Democratic Sen.) Tammy Baldwin at the top of the ticket, and we can do it in the presidential, as well.”
Democrats have other ways to reach 270 electoral votes. The more diverse Sun Belt’s political landscape is evolving, with Democrats winning a Senate race in Arizona and coming close but still falling short of statewide wins in Georgia and Texas last year. But Klobuchar and several other candidates or potential candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden looming largest among them, with Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown as part of the group, too — are arguing that the road to the White House runs through the Midwest.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has launched an exploratory committee as he weighs a presidential bid, said on CNN Thursday that the Democratic Party “seemed to have lost touch in the last election with the middle of the country.”
“Maybe it makes sense to have more voices from the industrial Midwest,” Buttigieg said.
Brown launched what he’s calling a “Dignity of Work” tour. He’s touted his re-election victory last year in Ohio — which is rapidly slipping out of the swing-state category after Trump cruised to victory there in 2016 and Republicans won the governor’s race last year — as proof of his “progressive populist” appeal to a group of white, working-class voters who have slipped away from Democrats in recent cycles.
Polls have shown Democratic voters are more focused than in previous cycles selecting a candidate who is electable — meaning a candidate who can make the case that he or she can perform best against Trump could have an advantage in the primary.
Klobuchar has a long history of outperforming other Democrats in Minnesota. She won re-election last year by 24 percentage points, two years after Clinton won the state by just two points, which left Democrats worrying it would be a new target for Republicans in the 2020 presidential election.
Klobuchar told the crowd Saturday that she hails from a “grassroots tradition of politics that people don’t understand we have in the Midwest.” She bragged about campaigning with Paul Wellstone, the iconic progressive former Minnesota senator. She touted an aggressive plan to expand broadband service in rural America and said she was focused on bridging a rural and urban divide.
“That was one of the points I wanted to make by coming to Eau Claire,” Klobuchar said, noting that the city sits in the middle of vast farmland.
O’Rourke’s approach is different to the likes of Klobuchar and Buttigieg who are focused on playing up their Midwestern ties but it’s aimed at a similar goal: Showing a broad appeal to Democratic voters who are concerned about their nominee’s electability.
After speaking to students at the University of Wisconsin, the El Paso native said he comes “from what very often feels like a forgotten place” and highlighted his road trips — to all 254 counties in Texas during a Senate race last year, and then through rural portions of Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico in January.
“I really want to just meet people where they are,” O’Rourke said. “I’m going everywhere to listen to everyone.”