By Aaron Blake - 07/18/06 12:00 AM EDT
COON RAPIDS, Minn. — The Fourth of July parade here was a golden opportunity for dozens of candidates campaigning for every type of elective office.
A boy who had collected stickers from just about every one of them — Republican, Democrat or otherwise — displayed them all on his shirt as he walked by Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Laborer Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar at the end of the procession.
A nonpartisan crowd, perhaps? Nonsense, Klobuchar said, the “swinging suburbs” are turning for her. But what she’s really counting on against Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) is some help from more rural voters, who two years ago disappointed Democrats in the presidential election by strongly supporting President Bush.
A poll released yesterday by the Minneapolis Star Tribune indicates that she’s winning the rural vote and much more.
According to the poll, rural voters and just about every other demographic group have swung strongly for Klobuchar recently, and it says she now leads 50-31 overall in what had been considered a toss-up and Republicans’ best pickup opportunity in the Senate.
But Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton’s retirement after one term, combined with GOP hopes about Kennedy, an up-and-coming congressman who has won some close races, has Republicans optimistic about their chances in one of the most evenly split swing states, despite a political environment that doesn’t favor them.
Kennedy’s campaign railed against the poll, pointing to liberal bloggers’ questioning of the results and to other recent polls that had the difference between the two candidates in the race in the single digits. An independent Rasmussen Reports poll from two weeks ago had Klobuchar ahead 47-44.
“This is just another ridiculous Minnesota poll; no one believes these numbers,” Kennedy spokeswoman Heidi Frederickson said.
Officials of Klobuchar’s campaign, which outraised Kennedy $1.8 million to $1.6 million over the last quarter, hailed the poll as symptomatic of their momentum but emphasized that they are not acting overly confident.
“This is going to be a tight race,” spokeswoman Tara McGuinness said.
The poll shows Kennedy trailing among all voter groups over the age of 24, among all levels of education and income, and behind 44-27 among those who don’t identify with either major party.
As for the rural vote, Klobuchar leads 41-36 percent outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, which President Bush carried despite losing 51-48 overall in the state in 2004.
This suburb is near that metro/out-state divide, just north of the Twin Cities and sandwiched between the Minneapolis-based county in which Klobuchar serves as district attorney and the Congressional district Kennedy serves.
Sitting down to rest after the parade, Klobuchar said she is counting on her familial roots in the rural Iron Range, an area that earned its name from the multiple distinct bands of iron ore found there, and an outpouring of interest in the election from rural voters. Kennedy said she had better rethink her strategy and touted his personal and occupational roots in all eight of Minnesota’s congressional districts.
Klobuchar’s father grew up in the Iron Range, and her grandfather was a miner. Kennedy, meanwhile, also has strong local roots; he was born in the 7th District, graduated from high school in the 8th and college in the 6th, worked in the 3rd, 4th and 5th and represented much of both the 1st and 2nd before redistricting in 2002.
“Some may talk about that their grandpa lived there,” Kennedy said. “I actually grew up in the 218 area code.”
Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Jim Oberstar represent vast swaths of the northern and western parts of the state, and Klobuchar is relying on their help. She said, “People on the range have a long memory, and they remember who came from there and who was born there.” But she also acknowledged that it “hasn’t exactly been a hotbed for women candidates.”
Kennedy, meanwhile, has Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R), a strong ally, in southern Minnesota. About half of what is now Gutknecht’s district helped Kennedy beat Rep. David Minge (D) in 2000. But its hub, Rochester, has trended more Democratic in recent years.
Kennedy is also counting on former Sen. Rod Grams (R) to bring out Republican voters in his race against longtime incumbent Oberstar in the 8th District, which was the only rural Minnesota district to vote for Kerry in 2004.
The contest for rural voters is just one example of how identity is playing into the race. Klobuchar has used her work as an attorney to cast herself as a crime-fighter unafraid of the establishment and willing to do what is right.
Her first campaign ad, released this month, talks about how she put a judge in jail even though he was also a Democrat. “Without fear or favor” is a slogan of hers.
Kennedy often refers to his work as an accountant; he would be the only one in the Senate if elected. He said it speaks to who he is as a strong fiscal conservative who is the author of a line-item-veto bill in the House and who has voted to cut every earmark targeted by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an ardent earmark opponent.
Kennedy admits he’s neither “flashy” nor “slick” like some politicians but says Minnesotans want someone who is “real.” And the reference isn’t subtle.
While Klobuchar and the Democrats, like many in their party around the country, have sought to tie their opponent to Bush, Kennedy has criticized Klobuchar’s past as a lobbyist during her time in private practice.