Amy Klobuchar is standing in front of me sipping a cold beer. No, we’re not on a one-on-one drinks date. But it does kind of feel like it, because there are only 33 people at the presidential candidate’s rally at the Silver Spur, a bar in Sidney, Iowa. Klobuchar is delivering her stump speech in front of a Christmas tree, a Michelob Ultra poster, and a wall of “Amy for Iowa” signs. She jokes about her hair and calls President Donald Trump a “whiner.” People are nodding, laughing, and (figuratively) eating out of the palm of her hand.
I find this surprising for a few reasons. For one, I grew up in this town — population 1,138 — and I know it’s home to a lot of folks with values more conservative than Klobuchar’s. We’re in a deep-red county, where almost 70% of voters chose Donald Trump in 2016. So just the fact that people are seriously listening to the senior Senator from Minnesota — the Democratic Senator, that is — seems like a win here.
For Klobuchar, who’s currently trailing behind other candidates in the polls, these intimate events are part of the strategy. They’re a way for her to reach people on the ground, and keep her hooks in those who were intrigued by her poignant performance in the December debate, when she sparred with fellow candidate Pete Buttigieg, calling out the double standard that has brought him, relatively inexperienced, to the stage.
“The more I can have people understand me — and sometimes that’s hard to do in 30-second answers at a debate — the more they’ll understand my experience in getting things done, winning elections, and bringing people with me,” Klobuchar tells Refinery29 in a phone interview a few weeks after the event.
When she says “people,” she doesn’t just mean those who are part of her base — women, farmers, and moderates. She also means those who are skeptical of her electability, including Gen Zers and millennials, like her 25-year-old daughter Abigail, who are likely to lean to the left of Klobuchar. And, of course, former Trump supporters.
Heather Magdanz, an Omaha, Neb., teacher who’s raised three children on her own for most of their lives, traveled an hour to hear Klobuchar speak here in Fremont County. Magdanz voted for Trump in 2016 because she thought it could be beneficial to have someone run the country “like a business.” But since his election, she’s changed her mind. “How do I intelligently say this — I think he’s off his rocker,” Magdanz tells Refinery29. “One thing that stood out to me about Amy’s speech was that she basically said: ‘Hey, I know some of you voted for Trump. Let’s move on, let’s make it better.’ I was happy to feel forgiven when she spoke.”
While sipping on whiskey at the event, the 42-year-old says Klobuchar has been on her radar since the politician’s face-off with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings, which focused heavily on the sexual assault allegations against him. There, she aimed her line of questioning at his drinking, mentioning her own father’s struggles with alcohol addiction. Kavanaugh, in turn, became defensive and snidely asked Klobuchar if she’d ever blacked out drunk. He later apologized to her publicly for the comments, which many deemed insensitive and inappropriate. In this exchange, Magdanz noticed a few parallels to her own experiences standing up to men.
“Amy asked her questions, stayed calm, and let a privileged man make an ass of himself,” Magdanz says. “It was a beautiful moment; she was blunt, but not a bully.”
Before Klobuchar’s arrival at the Silver Spur, her staffers hang “Amy for Iowa” signs on the wall. But the painter’s tape they’re using isn’t sturdy. Every few minutes, one of the placards falls to the floor. The crowd turns it into a drinking game. Every time a poster falls, they drink. It’s enough to get some people tipsy before Klobuchar even arrives.
One member of the crowd wonders aloud if the Klobuchar campaigners are scared their boss will be upset if her backdrop isn’t perfect. They’ve obviously seen the news reports — like the one about how she got so angry at a staffer for not bringing a fork for her salad that she used a hair comb to prove her point — that frame her personality as domineering and her management style as borderline cruel. But it’s also not hard to hear the faint tone of sexism when you read about Klobuchar’s alleged actions. Would we be so hard on a man for anecdotes like these? And, as The Atlantic proposed, is the fact that she’s a woman helping her weather the whispers of her bad behavior? She’s not combative or defensive when I ask her about her “blunt” tendencies which led to some of these unflattering reports. Instead, she’s direct and kind.
“There are a lot of double standards,” Klobuchar says. “But my job is to meet the highest standard and show people I can do the job.”
Some voters chalk up Klobuchar’s tough leadership style to doing what needs to be done. Others believe Klobuchar is tempering her “Midwestern nice” public persona with directness so she doesn’t get bulldozed.
“As a woman, you have to be blunt,” Peru State College student Kayla Myers, 21, says at the rally. “In college, if I take roles higher up in organizations, there are times I have to be more direct than a male in my position would be. If I’m not, they don’t take me as seriously.”
Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications at the political action committee EMILY’s List, says that women running for president have found ways to overcome common negative misconceptions, especially in politics. Electability is on voter’s minds, and, like any candidate, they have to show that they can beat Donald Trump — which basically means being a little mean.
But Klobuchar contends that she’s already faced those challenges, even winning in ultra-conservative districts like the one Michele Bachmann once represented. In her 2018 reelection for the Senate, Klobuchar dominated Trump territory in Minnesota, turning 42 counties that went red in 2016 blue. Part of her success, she believes, has to do with her matter-of-fact approach. She means what she says, and she gets shit done.
“I grew up in a family where my mom and dad were really straightforward,” she shares. Her mom was an opinionated second grade teacher, and her dad grew up in a “rough and tumble” mining town. “He was very ‘to-the-point’ as everyone from that side of the family was,” Klobuchar says. “It’s important to speak about things in ways that are clear to people. We have a president right now who’s told over 15,000 lies. Being honest and straightforward with people is important.”
Amy Klobuchar’s candidacy is far from a slam dunk. In fact, it’s very much a long shot. Her single digits in the polls reflect her budget. Her campaign announced that it raised $11.4 million in 2019’s fourth quarter, compared to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ $34.5M million, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s $21.2M, and President Trump’s $46 million. Her piggy bank just isn’t as full as her competitors’, regardless of the heralded performance in the December debate.
So she’s doing what Midwesterners pride themselves on doing best: working hard. She’s visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, and has had more events in the state than any other candidate who has qualified for the January debate (to be exact, 156, per a recent count from The Des Moines Reister’s candidate tracker). She knows, like President Barack Obama did in 2008, that if she can make a splash in my home state, she can make a ripple when it comes to the rest of the nation. Luckily for her, she’s particularly great at one thing: Getting votes in the Midwest. Her stories of grit and hard work resonate in this part of the country. She chronicles the plights of dairy farmers, stockroom workers, and carpenters — people I grew up with — who toil at multiple jobs because it’s gotten “harder and harder to pay for college, their mortgage, and even their cable bill.”
This could make her the dark horse candidate America needs.
But even that might not be enough, explains Casey Dominguez, Ph.D., an associate professor of political science at The University of San Diego.
“Experience isn’t a challenge for Amy, it puts her in a competitive tier,” Dominguez explains. Her real problems have to do with name recognition and funding. Free media would do a lot for her, which is why it’s crucial she does well at the upcoming caucus.
As Dominguez puts it: “She needs Iowa.”
When President Donald Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016, confetti flew and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones played over the loudspeakers in the background. Klobuchar may not be exactly what you want, either. She may be too moderate or too frank for your taste. She believes there’s a “better way” to lower health care costs than “Medicare for All.” She doesn’t plan to make college tuition-free. Her approach to climate change isn’t as bold as some of the other candidates’. But she also values a lot about the things that most Americans care about, too: Quality education, fair wages, and gun reform. She’s sponsored bills on topics that probably matter to you. For example, she rallied her female colleagues in the Senate to pass a bill that made it easier to get overnight treatment if you have an eating disorder. She also championed one of the first laws in the country granting new moms and their babies a guaranteed 48-hour hospital stay. She was the first presidential candidate to introduce a comprehensive mental health and addiction plan.
Passing a lot of bills isn’t the “most sexy thing out there,” says Reynolds. But it does matter.
As the rally at The Silver Spur comes to a close, Magdanz and Myers are enraptured as the senator illustrates her final points. She’s set her beer down by this point, and is talking passionately and waving her hands like a conductor.
Small town by small town, Klobuchar is weaving together a patchwork of supporters in red counties with her no-nonsense thread. Sure, she’s not exactly dreamy like President Obama was, and she doesn’t shout like Sanders or have insanely detailed plans like Warren. But she’s honest, she’s sincere, and she can even get her ex-boyfriends to donate to her cause.
Slowly and steadily, Klobuchar is building a coalition that just might deliver that Iowa surprise — even if it’s held together with painters tape like her signs.
As Klobuchar closes her speech at the tiny bar, she says: “We better not screw this up.”
With that, another piece of tape gives way, another sign falls, and the people raise their glasses.
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