A Super Tuesday duel for moderate Democratic voters in Minnesota is shaping up between two mild-mannered Midwesterners who few thought would ever make it this far.
A year ago, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s hopes seemed as hazy as the Minneapolis blizzard that greeted the start of her presidential campaign; then-South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was a political unknown with a hard-to-pronounce last name.
Now with former Vice President Joe Biden faltering in the early voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, moderate Democrats are looking for a candidate who can blunt the momentum of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a champion of the party’s left who won Minnesota’s Democratic caucuses four years ago.
Heading into the March 3 Democratic primaries, with Minnesota among the 14 states weighing in, Buttigieg and Klobuchar are each holding themselves out as a fragmented party’s best chance of coalescing around a unity candidate who can beat President Donald Trump in November. Buttigieg is building on the momentum of a top finish in Iowa and a second-place spot in New Hampshire; Klobuchar, benefiting from low expectations in early polls, surprised the nation with a gritty third-place finish in the Granite State. It’s given her enough momentum to at least make it as far as where it all began — her home state.
As a new face in Minnesota, Buttigieg’s challenge is boosting his name recognition quickly in a state where he hasn’t invested much in the way of time or resources. He visited Minneapolis last year for a private fundraiser, and his husband, Chasten, hosted a reception in October. But the campaign so far has no paid staff dedicated solely to Minnesota.
In place of a professional staff, a group of at least 100 Buttigieg volunteers has bubbled up in Minnesota, taking over phone-banking and door-knocking. They send out a daily e-mail newsletter and host regular “Pete Ups,” working peer-to-peer to target people who are “Pete curious.” At a recent debate watch party, organizers said attendance doubled after his strong performance in Iowa.
However well he’s done nationally, it could still be a challenge for Buttigieg to peel away moderate support from Klobuchar, a three-term senator who has won re-election twice in Minnesota with more than 60% of the vote. Despite that, supporters say she isn’t taking anything for granted in her home state, where a poor showing on March 3 could all but knock her out the race.
In view of that pressure, her national headquarters in Minneapolis has dispatched paid staff and surrogates on the ground who are organizing door knocks and get-out-the-vote efforts in Minnesota, a state still largely overlooked by the competition — with the exception of Sanders, whose wife visited Friday, and Michael Bloomberg, who has put up more than $4.5 million in ads across the state.
Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, represents a major X-factor in what has become an unsettled race: a self-funding billionaire magnate, he hasn’t competed in the early states. But he has spent hundreds of millions on ads, staff and field offices in Super Tuesday states like Minnesota. He’s also courting rural and urban voters as a moderate alternative to Sanders.
“There has not been a test yet whether Bloomberg’s strategy will work for him,” said Jeff Blodgett, a former state director for Barack Obama and adviser to Klobuchar’s campaign. “It’s an extraordinarily costly effort to build name ID, and whether you can solidify that with votes at the polling place remains to be seen.”
Sanders too is adding staff in Super Tuesday states like Minnesota. He recently launched his first television and digital ads in the state. His wife, Jane Sanders, made an appearance in Minneapolis on Friday for a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s March. She was also in Minnesota to campaign.
“In every election the Democratic Party has chosen a moderate, they’ve lost,” she said in an interview. “They’ve chosen the safe bet and they’ve lost because they’ve lost the enthusiasm that energizes the electorate.”
Sanders recently won the first-ever endorsement of progressive group TakeAction Minnesota, which is trying to mobilize its 50,000 members to get out and support Sanders in the primary. “He’s the only candidate who has stayed true to his vision and fight for the last 50 years,” said TakeAction organizer Jamila Mame. “No one else can say that.”
In the hunt for moderate Democrats — the arena where Klobuchar and Buttigieg are competing — Biden is also still a force. He came in a disappointing fifth in New Hampshire and fourth in Iowa, but could see a boost in Nevada and South Carolina, which might bring back wavering Minnesota supporters.
Biden placed second in a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll on Friday, just behind Sanders. Tied in the middle of the pack, behind Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer, were Klobuchar and Buttigieg, at 10% support each — a result that underscores their intensifying rivalry as Minnesotans prepare to go to the polls.
Klobuchar supporter Jerry Gale of Brooklyn Park said she has proved her electability in Minnesota and could help Democrats win seats in states across the country. He said he’s skeptical of Buttigieg, whose two terms as mayor of a city of 100,000 people isn’t a broad enough test of his electability.
“There are millions of Republicans who can’t stand Trump and they’re not going to vote for Bernie and I think they would have some doubts about Pete,” he said.
Vying for the same center slice of the Democratic electorate, Klobuchar and Buttigieg have drawn distinctions from one another in the debates. She’s criticized his relative lack of political experience, while he’s criticized her for being part of the old Washington political guard. She said he has flip-flopped on Medicare for All, which neither of them support. Both support abortion rights, but Klobuchar has pitched a “big tent” attitude on the issue, welcoming voters who oppose abortion rights into her campaign.
Both need to court Biden defectors as well as Democratic voters who worry that Sanders’ progressive populism, however popular with the party’s activist base, will be a losing formula in the fall general election.
Sanders, who placed first in New Hampshire, is not turning out enough support to run away with the nomination. The total number of delegates, not just victories in individual states, is an important part of the calculation in a fractured race that could stretch all the way to the convention. That has created space in the middle for Klobuchar to challenge both Biden and Buttigieg, who have focused more of their resources in bigger, delegate-rich states.
As Klobuchar remains in contention, Minnesota looms larger in her calculations. While she may have a leg up on her Midwestern rival, few are counting out Buttigieg in the state. The Harvard-educated, 38-year-old veteran and first openly gay presidential candidate from a major party has done well with affluent white voters, a large voting bloc in Minnesota.
“I think he’s the middle-aged and older person’s ideal image of a younger person,” said Steven Schier, a retired Carleton College political scientist. “He’s very bright and he’s very articulate and he’s been able to use that — to take Amy’s phrase — to punch above his weight.”