Craig Hiller, an Iowa farmer, had just enjoyed a hot chocolate on Amy Klobuchar’s campaign bus as it made a stop in the small town of Rockwell City, population just 2,100.
Hiller, whose state is the vital first one to cast ballots in the party’s nomination race to pick an opponent to Donald Trump, was impressed by the Minnesota senator, a fellow midwesterner who desperately needs a strong showing in Iowa to boost her 2020 presidential campaign.
“Who we need is someone who someone who’s down to earth, who no one can hate,” Hiller said on Rockwell City’s Main Street as Klobuchar’s bus rolled to its next stop in Cherokee county, 50 miles west. “I don’t know anyone after tonight who fits that better than Amy Klobuchar.”
That sort of reaction is music to Klobuchar’s ears as she carried out a gruelling tour through 27 counties in rural Iowa in an attempt to build a groundswell of support through reaching out to the state’s smallest towns and rural settlements. With this strategy, even a couple dozen attendees counts as a success.
On her arrival in Rockwell – with temperatures below freezing – 25 people including Hiller had piled aboard the big green Amy bus for hot chocolate. Two dozen others had turned out to see the Minnesota senator in tiny Ida Grove that same day, a county that doesn’t even have 1,000 registered Democrats. But most striking to Klobuchar was a crowd of around 50 packing the Sac County Cattle Company on a Sunday night just before Christmas. It’s where the Republican congressman Steve King, who hails from Kiron, 30 miles south, stumps and dines with family. The proprietor said Klobuchar’s crowds were at least the size of King’s, or any other Republican who has come calling.
Klobuchar said those gatherings are a sign of what to expect on Iowa’s caucus day on 3 February. Klobuchar sits at about 6% support among probable Iowa caucusgoers, according to the most recent Des Moines Register Iowa poll in October, but a strong debate showing in Los Angeles brought her notice. She says it’s evidence of momentum, just like the folks coming out to see her in increasing numbers.
“We’re approaching this like we can win, and all signs are pointing in the right direction,” Klobuchar told the Guardian. “A crowd that size in Sac City, anywhere in rural America, means something. I’m especially glad it’s in Steve King’s backyard.”
Klobuchar is blunt about her shared background with Iowa’s voters. She brags about being from the midwest, and how she can win in rural Minnesota counties that Trump took by 20 points. In the last Democratic debate she took a dig at the location of a rival’s fundraiser by saying she’s never been to a wine cave, but she’s been to a wind cave in South Dakota. A mention of Trump is usually followed with a mention of the tanking of corn and soybean prices from trade wars. Her entire argument is built around electability in midwest swing states such as Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio.
“He’s treating farmers like poker chips in one of his bankrupt casinos,” she said to the delight of her audience at one stop. By contrast, she says she remembers her neighbors saving spare cash in coffee cans growing up.
The question is whether her momentum, which is mainly confined to Iowa, is too little too late. In less than six weeks, caucusgoers will trudge through a frigid night to precinct meetings in schoolhouses and courthouses – while she may be chained to Trump’s impeachment trial in the US Senate, which is set to start sometime in January and last for an unknown time.
“To say it’s an uphill battle would definitely be accurate, even charitable,” said Brad Best, a longtime caucus observer and political science professor at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake. “In an ironic way, her stardom in the Senate will hurt her campaigning in Iowa, where she desperately needs to do well.”
Yet, there are precedents. John Kerry came from the shadows in 2004 less than two weeks before the caucuses to win, and later secure the nomination. Klobuchar says a doubling of office spaces in Iowa and positive responses in Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa polls are signs of hope. Best says her strongest advantage is that overwhelming majorities of probable caucusgoers have favorable opinions of her and list her in their top three selections.
“I’d say I know Iowans pretty well, and they really like honesty, which is what we aren’t seeing from the man in the White House,” Klobuchar said, citing the 39 counties in Iowa that voted for Trump in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008.
She says people there have a thirst for economic prosperity that can be achieved realistically, not with promises like Medicare for All. She never mentions challengers from the progressive wing by name. “We can win them back telling the truth. We can bring those people back.”
Congressional candidate JD Scholten, a Sioux City Democrat running against King, likes Klobuchar’s strategy of dwelling on rural voters. He just capped off a 39-county bus tour of western Iowa in a camper.
Scholten said voters in rural areas like Sac City and Rockwell City are easier to organize than in Democratic metro strongholds such as Des Moines or Iowa City. Those who show up in Rockwell City are reliably Democratic and less issue-focused. Rarely do they see a candidate with Klobuchar’s resume. When they do, they leave with a strong impression.
“It’s a lot easier to get viability in Sac county than Polk county,” said Scholten. “She recognizes that people are familiar with her. Sac City isn’t a long way from the Iowa-Minnesota border.”
Those who hear Klobuchar’s message like her focus on the midwest. After the Sac City event, one farmer – who declined to offer his name because his landlord is Republican – said Klobuchar’s retelling of family stories from the iron ore mines and farms of northern Minnesota struck him as authentic.
“It’s not a story she picked up from somewhere. It’s one you can tell she’s from here, she’s one of us who faces the same problems we do,” he said.
The post Klobuchar gains momentum in Iowa – but will her gruelling tour be enough? appeared first on The Guardian.