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Kennedy vs. Klobuchar: Minn. Democrat began political life with a race against current UND president

Then-U.S. Senate candidates Mark Kennedy, left, a Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, spar during a debate at the Minnesota State Fair in September 2006. Independence Party candidate Robert Fitzgerald also joined the debate. Joe Rossi / St. Paul Pioneer Press

GRAND FORKS — Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has announced her intention to run for president, entering a crowded national field that’s gathering well before the 2020 election.

But long before she announced her candidacy to take over the Oval Office, Klobuchar made her way up the political ladder, one rung of which was a race for a Senate seat against current University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy. In 2006, Klobuchar took on then-U.S. Rep. Kennedy in an election that gave Klobuchar her first of three terms in the Senate and put her on track as a rising force in the Democratic Party.

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, said the political atmosphere in 2006 was not favorable for Republicans. In that election, Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and also won a majority of governorships and state legislatures from the Republican Party. The election came halfway into President George W. Bush’s second term in office, when his approval ratings were falling amid the war in Iraq.

“It was very difficult waters to swim in 2006 if you just happened to be in the same party with a president who at that point was not as popular as he was when he was elected,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy last week said he and Klobuchar are on “very good terms.” In fact, Kennedy said Klobuchar came to his going-away party when he left George Washington University to come to UND. Also, she has spoken at the Economic Club of Minnesota, of which Kennedy is the volunteer chairman.

Kennedy emphasizes that, as the president of UND, he does not have an opinion on presidential candidates for the 2020 race.

Schultz said Kennedy did well representing his congressional district, but also said Kennedy faced a difficult race because of state voter demographics. Kennedy hailed from a conservative congressional district, but Minnesota Senate races are statewide elections and Minnesota, Schultz notes, is rather liberal.

Klobuchar won the race, garnering 58 percent of the vote, while Kennedy took 38 percent. Schultz considers it Klobuchar’s most difficult Senate race. Since then, she has won two additional Senate terms, with large winning margins.

Laying the groundwork

Don Davis, longtime Minnesota statehouse reporter, wasn’t directly covering the 2006 Senate race, but recalls having conversations with colleagues and initially thinking Klobuchar’s run was a surprise. Davis recently retired from Forum News Service.

Looking back, Davis says Klobuchar’s rise to the Senate wasn’t at all surprising. She was president of the county attorneys association in the state. She traveled extensively throughout Minnesota, speaking to local news media while she was there. She got her name out to the people of Minnesota long before she or anyone else knew she intended to run for a federal office.

“She had been laying the groundwork for the Senate run for some time,” he said. “It wasn’t like she announced it and then all of the sudden started running it.”

Lori Sturdevant, who recently retired from a career as a Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist and editorial writer, said one thing that stands out in her mind about Klobuchar’s campaign style is how hard she works. For example, Klobuchar visits every Minnesota county to talk to her constituents.

“She has an incredible tenacity and a willingness to be everywhere,” she said.

Klobuchar had other advantages during that first Senate run, Schultz said. She was already well known in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s largest county, as the county attorney. And it didn’t hurt that her father, Jim Klobuchar, was a columnist for many years at the Star Tribune.

“I think (having that name recognition) helped her. I think coming from a large county helped her, (and) campaigning in every county in the state helped her,” Schultz said.

Still, Schultz calls her 2006 campaign “perfectly executed.”

“She did a great job at posturing herself as the moderate, posturing herself as someone who could reach out to everybody across the state,” he said. “I think all of that was absolutely brilliant. I just don’t know how she translates all of that to a national stage.”

Run for president

When he was a reporter, Davis said he often asked Klobuchar if she aspired to be president. He sees a similarity between the first time Klobuchar ran for Senate, after years of spending time around the state, and her run for president, after spending years doing speaking engagements across the county.

“Whether she was going to run or not, she’s in demand as a speaker,” Davis said. “So it looks a little bit like when she ran for Senate. She has been around the country, spoken all over the place and she doesn’t publicize where she’s been.”

Klobuchar doesn’t have as much name recognition as others across the country and she’s not coming from a highly populated state with a heavy media market, Schultz said.

He said the highly polarized political environment may not play well for Klobuchar, who is viewed as a centrist Democrat by many. Schultz notes that in 2016 Hillary Clinton ran on a similar idea, but it still didn’t get her the presidency.

“I sort of view our political system now as so intensely polarized that I really do wonder if any Republican can earn Democratic votes or if any Democrat can win Republican votes,” he said.

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