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All quiet at Fort Klobuchar

Paul Demko//November 9, 2011//

All quiet at Fort Klobuchar

Paul Demko//November 9, 2011//

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U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has “positioned herself well to keep the support of the independents, the moderates, even the Republican leaners who supported her back in 2006,” a political science professor said. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Try as she might, there are occasions when Sen. Amy Klobuchar can’t please everyone. Last month the DFL freshman senator drew national headlines when teen idol Justin Bieber declared that she should be “locked up” for sponsoring legislation that would make streaming unlicensed online content a felony.

Klobuchar’s office acted quickly to quell the unlikely controversy. “Bieber must have been misled about the content of this bill,” spokeswoman Brigit Helgin said in a statement. “It’s not about people posting their personal work on the Web. … The bill only covers the intentional commercial theft of things like books, commercial music and movies, including foreign piracy.”

But Shubha Ghosh, an expert in intellectual property law who teaches at the University of Wisconsin Law School, isn’t so certain that the legislation wouldn’t have applied to Bieber’s early videos, in which he covered pop/R&B standards on YouTube. “It all depends upon how the law gets interpreted,” Ghosh said, arguing that the bill should be more narrowly worded. “Do you have to have some kind of mental state that’s criminal? … A good prosecutor could probably argue that he did.”

The incident is instructive only in the sense that it’s completely at odds with Klobuchar’s track record during her first five years in office. The former Hennepin County attorney has not exactly been a lightning rod for controversy on Capitol Hill. Her legislative portfolio leans heavily toward noncontroversial measures like protecting children from hazardous pool drains, seniors from identity theft and teenagers from synthetic drugs. She has also been conspicuously focused on issues of significant relevance to Minnesota: controlling Asian carp, expediting approval of medical devices and securing money for a new bridge over the St. Croix River.

“She doesn’t miss an opportunity to make a case for Minnesota,” said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University. “She not only has a reputation as being a politician with national standing, but she’s managed to combine that with a concern for local issues. She could duck an issue like the Stillwater bridge, but she doesn’t choose to do so.” (There are those who believe that the ever-cautious Klobuchar jumped into the bridge fray partly for electoral reasons: to defuse the looming possibility, however remote, that Stillwater-area Congresswoman Michele Bachmann would set her sights on a 2012 run against Klobuchar.)

Klobuchar’s overall voting record as she prepares for her first re-election campaign in 2012 puts her squarely in the centrist segment of the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority. According to a National Journal analysis of 96 votes taken during the 2010 legislative cycle, Klobuchar ranked as the 38th most liberal member of the Senate. That’s exactly one spot behind where she ranked in the same analysis for the 2008 session.

“She really has positioned herself ideologically, in terms of party support, somewhere in the middle,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “She’s also earned a reputation as a serious legislator, someone who works on a broad range of policy issues.”

Klobuchar has made headlines recently for sponsoring a key piece of President Barack Obama’s proposed jobs package. The legislation would provide $50 billion for transportation projects and $10 billion to seed a national infrastructure bank. It would be paid for with a new 0.7 percent surcharge on millionaires. Last week the Senate voted 51-49 in favor of a procedural motion to bring up that component of Obama’s jobs bill, nine short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster.

Klobuchar’s central role in a divisive issue of national importance was unusual. But most political observers believe it was a shrewd move. “In the larger scheme of all these proposals, that one gets a lot of support,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the Cook Political Report. “Now that they’re going to divide the bill up, it works better. I don’t think she would have gotten behind the whole bill as a package.”

Klobuchar’s cautious, conscientious approach has positioned her as a virtual lock for re-election. In 2006 she cruised to a 20-point victory over former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy in what was expected to be a tightly contested race for an open seat. Polling consistently shows her among the most popular incumbents in the country, and she has accumulated a campaign war chest of more than $4 million.
“She’s positioned herself well to keep the support of the independents, the moderates, even the Republican leaners who supported her back in 2006,” Pearson said. “Her record in the Senate and her fundraising record have deterred any challengers who would have a realistic shot at defeating her.”

Duffy likewise sees no evidence that Klobuchar is vulnerable — even if 2012 proves to be a strong GOP year. “Not a stitch,” she said.
That likely explains why Klobuchar has attracted no formidable challengers so far. Former state Rep. Dan Severson fell less than 5 points short in his challenge to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie last year, suggesting that he might have some statewide strength. But Severson raised a paltry $36,000 in the third quarter of this year and finished September with less than $28,000 in the bank. St. Bonifacius City Council Member Joe Arwood, who entered the race in August, reported raising just $11,000. Last month St. Paul resident Anthony Hernandez added his name to the GOP field. His previous political venture: a 42-percentage-point loss to DFL state Sen. Dick Cohen last year. That field isn’t likely to keep Klobuchar up at night worrying about turnout in Bemidji.

The shallowness of the GOP field has led to ongoing speculation about other potential candidates. The name most frequently mentioned in GOP circles: Bill Guidera, a top executive with the media conglomerate News Corp. Guidera declined to comment for this story, but he has proven a formidable fundraiser, especially for the state party. “He’s keeping Tony [Sutton and the state GOP] out of bankruptcy court,” as one GOP insider put it. “So he knows how to raise money.”

But even a Republican with Guidera’s fundraising chops would likely find the climate difficult. That’s because many political observers believe that Klobuchar has done an effective job of locking up support from business interests that typically lean Republican. Those donors might be loath to cut substantial checks to a campaign that would be a decided underdog. In addition, there’s little evidence that the race is likely to garner national attention. In fact, many Republican activists are already looking ahead to 2014, when Sen. Al Franken will be up for re-election for the first time and is expected to be significantly more vulnerable.

“It looks to me like national Republican recruiters have given up on Minnesota,” Smith said. “They clearly have not given Minnesota any attention.”

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