01 amy klobuchar LEAD IMAGE CENTER
CNN  — 

Joe Biden praises Amy Klobuchar when given the chance, calling her “first rate.” But the presumptive nominee has declined to offer many clues on her standing as a potential running mate. Klobuchar has followed in stride, often answering that she won’t “engage in hypotheticals,” when asked.

But out of the spotlight of national interviews, the Minnesota senator is waging a not-so-quiet campaign to become Biden’s number 2, joining his podcast, raising money and assuming the role of a top surrogate.

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

The prospect that Biden could pick Klobuchar has generated a fierce backlash from some Democrats, who signaled the three-term senator would be an unacceptable choice stemming in part for her criminal justice record while she was a county attorney.

That record could resurface as her home state grapples with the death of George Floyd, who died this week in Minneapolis after pleading that he couldn’t breathe while a police officer held him down with a knee on his neck. Klobuchar, along with other Minnesota lawmakers, has called for an investigation into the death, and told CNN the case is “just crying out for some kind of a charge.”

Still, allies point to Klobuchar’s work ethic, ability to cut deals across the aisle and attractiveness to some voters in battle ground states make her a quality candidate.

“She is really about the work,” Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, a personal friend, said of Klobuchar in an interview. “If you wanted to know what kind of vice president she would be, I think that would tell you. She is somebody who is not afraid to dig in and get the work done.”

It’s a message akin to the one Klobuchar tried to deliver to voters during the Democratic primary, and a legacy she has continued to build on since her own campaign ended.

After suspending her own presidential bid in early March, the 60-year-old senator has focused on making legislation to expand vote-by-mail and early voting her signature issues since the coronavirus outbreak, helping secure $400 million for the issue in the CARES Act that passed in late March. She also has worked to get $47 million for domestic violence survivors and has sounded the alarm on the toll the virus may take in rural areas around the country.

Her work comes as the Biden campaign has started vetting potential vice presidential picks. Biden committed to choosing a woman as his vice presidential pick back in March, and has since created a selection committee to vet candidates. His committee, he says, is looking at more than a dozen possible picks that includes numerous women of color and former 2020 rivals like Klobuchar.

In an early move that helped separate her from the pack, Klobuchar was the first 2020 primary candidate with a number of delegates to announce she would endorse Biden. She insisted that Biden could bring the country together and build a coalition of Democrats, independents and Republicans “because we do not in our party want to just eke by a victory. We want to win big.”

A Biden donor and Klobuchar supporter credited her for rushing to support the former vice president when, in the days leading into Super Tuesday, it was obvious it wasn’t going to be her. “I thought she was one candidate who grew a lot during the primaries.” The donor added they thought the best options of the names being floated are Klobuchar and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

In deciding between Klobuchar and others, the Biden campaign faces a choice of what type of running mate is best suited to become his counterpart – a close ideological match like the Minnesota senator, a nod at the racial diversity of the party and energize his base by choosing Harris or Georgia’s Stacey Abrams or building a bridge between moderate Democrats and progressives by selecting Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

As Biden’s committee works on vetting potential picks, Klobuchar has been virtually active across multiple facets of the campaign, from appearing on his podcast to headlining a Women for Biden town hall.

Most notably, the senator has held video fundraising calls for Biden – and during one, she raised $1.5 million in one night from her own network.

“She’s definitely positioned herself as a workhorse and a valuable member of a potential team,” a Biden supporter said of Klobuchar’s work to CNN in an interview.

“The fact that she raised so much money for Biden by doing these two phone calls, I think bodes well for her,” said the source who is not involved in the selection committee.

“I think the vice president has a long-standing relationship with her and is very fond of her. I know the campaign is as well,” said Ken Martin, chairman of the Minnesota DFL Party and a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

In Klobuchar, Biden would also gain a senator who is widely recognized as someone who can work across the aisle to get deals done, cementing the reputation of being a favorite among Republicans.

Comparing Klobuchar’s abilities to Biden himself, Smith pointed to the work he did as vice president in 2009 to ensure the stimulus bill to address the recession passed Congress, using relationships he had built during his own time in the Senate.

Smith likened that to bills Klobuchar shepherded by working closely with Republicans, from getting money for voting issues in a recent coronavirus-related stimulus package to federal funding for a fatal bridge collapse in Minnesota back in 2007.

“Once I came to the Senate myself and I could see firsthand those relationships, which are genuine relationships built on trust and respect … it’s why she’s been able to get things done so effectively,” she said. “I would think that he would look to Amy and say she’s got those qualities.”

Smith, a former Minnesota lieutenant governor, learned what it meant to be someone’s No. 2 as a mentee of former Vice President Walter Mondale. She believes Klobuchar would do well in such a role.

Those close to Biden have said loyalty and a personal connection are critical to him when choosing a running mate, hoping to mirror his own relationship with former President Barack Obama.

“If you think that loyalty is about the walk, not the talk, you can look at what Amy does and I call that loyalty,” Smith said.

‘A work horse, not a show horse’

Klobuchar is often viewed as a staunch moderate from the Midwest who can attract white-working class voters, independents who voted for both Obama and Trump, and Republicans – a feat she demonstrated in the New Hampshire primary in February, when she placed third.

“She’s responsive, she listens, she engages, she shows up,” Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said of Klobuchar. “She has excellent numbers here in Minnesota. And I think she would do well in the Midwest, Upper Midwest, Michigan and Wisconsin. She’s someone you can count on.”

The former congressman wouldn’t say who he believes Biden should choose for vice president.

But Ellison – who has been in contact with the Biden campaign since his pick for the nomination, Bernie Sanders, dropped out – rejected the premise that Klobuchar’s efforts after ending her own campaign are to draw Biden’s attention.

“She just does this,” he said. “She’s a busy, hardworking person. So, I don’t think it’s the ‘she’s only just motivated by ambition,’ here. I could see her doing this no matter what the political moment was.”

Martin, who has worked with Klobuchar in the state for years, says her diligence is what separates her from other lawmakers in Washington, DC.

“I think when people look at Amy Klobuchar, they see someone who’s imminently qualified for the job. Someone who is a workhorse and not a show horse,” Martin said.

Klobuchar transferred that work ethic from her campaign into Biden’s almost immediately, transforming herself into one of his most active surrogates.

The Minnesota native ended her presidential bid on March 2 after an event in Utah. Hours later, she flew privately to Dallas to join Biden and his wife Jill Biden at rally.

In her concession speech, Klobuchar replaced her own name with Biden’s.

“I think you know you have a home with Joe Biden,” she said, altering a popular stump line in March. From that Dallas rally, she got straight to work for the former vice president, cutting two ads in her native Minnesota for their primary election. With her help, Biden won Minnesota handily, beating Bernie Sanders – who had won the state in 2016 – by almost 10%.

That night, Klobuchar aides told CNN the two spoke after his win. Klobuchar then headed to Michigan the following weekend as his surrogate – just days before the pandemic shut down the physical campaign trail. Biden won that state by more than 15%.

In the months since, Klobuchar has launched the Win Big Project in effort to aid down ballot races with fundraising and endorsements. So far, she’s endorsed more than 12 congressional and statewide candidates – participating in virtual fundraisers and sent fundraising emails.

Potential challenges

Still, Klobuchar faces opposition from forces outside the selection committee, strained relationships held over from the primary election: African Americans and progressives.

Klobuchar’s record on race and criminal justice from her time as Hennepin County attorney was put into the spotlight during her primary campaign, during which she was unable to build a broad coalition of support across racial lines.

During the primary, Klobuchar was hit on her reliance on grand juries to investigate police-involved killing and not prosecute cases herself if charges weren’t referred. As Minneapolis now deals with the death of Floyd – its most high-profile in a number of years – Klobuchar said it’s better for individual prosecutors to make the decision – not grand juries.

She has faced the most criticism on the case of Myon Burrell. In 2002, Klobuchar’s office prosecuted and eventually sent Burrell to prison for life for the killing of 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards. Tensions in her home state over the case grew after an investigative report raised questions about its handling. In the final days of her bid, groups including the Minneapolis NAACP called for her to suspend her campaign, and her staff had to cancel an event after black and white protesters occupied the stage shouting “Free Myon.”

Asked if that record will hurt her chances, Ellison said Klobuchar isn’t alone in having issues with her record.

“It’d be better if it wasn’t there, but I don’t think you’re gonna have any candidate who doesn’t have some sort of thing that they need to explain to a certain segment of voters,” he said.

Ellison pointed to other candidates: He noted a law Harris, also a former prosecutor, championed which punished the parents of truant children, leading some to be jailed. And he acknowledged Stacey Abrams’ loss in the 2018 gubernatorial Georgia race against current Gov. Brian Kemp.

In an effort to improve some of the strained relationships, Klobuchar has been vocal about the disparities people of color in the country face– which have been both highlighted and made worse during the pandemic. She called on President Donald Trump to partner with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and release more racial demographic data pertaining to Covid-19 and led the effort to make phone calls from inmates in federal prisons free during the pandemic.

Those efforts earned her nods from National Urban League, the AARP, Voto Latino and the NAACP, which hosted a town hall with her to discuss the issue.

Still, some black activists have made clear Klobuchar would not a suitable pick, going as far as naming her outright in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month that implored presumptive nominee Joe Biden to choose a black woman as his Vice President.

Polling, too, shows that a number of voters want Biden to pick a diverse candidate. A new CNN poll conducted by SSRS released this month found that 38% of Democratic voters say Biden choosing a person of color is one of the top two traits they’d like to see in Biden’s choice.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter and co-author of the Washington Post op-ed, said a reason Klobuchar won’t bring that enthusiasm to the ticket is because she’s billed herself as a candidate who can pick off Republican voters, not pick up all voters from diverse background.

“By her own account, her appeal is with white working-class Midwesterners. We’re saying that she has to do more that. We’re looking for a candidate that can pull the true diversity of the Democratic Party,” specifically African Americans, Brown added.

“She has not been an exciting candidate or leader for [the black] community,” in Minnesota, touching again upon her prosecutorial record.

Klobuchar’s office did not respond to CNN when asked about her relationship with the black community.

Black voters have long been the backbone of the Democratic Party, with 93% turning out for Obama in 2012 and 89% in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Brown was clear that black people make up large populations in midwestern cities where Klobuchar is thought to have the most impact, and a candidate needs to engage those constituents as well. She added that part of the reason black voters supported Biden in South Carolina was his ability to attract white voters.

“We supported him thinking that he could pull them and solidify them. I’m not so sure of the value Klobuchar adds to ticket, unless the Democratic Party is only trying to court working class white folks,” Brown said.

She said that it’s less about Klobuchar individually, whom she called smart and qualified to be president, but more about meeting the moment. Covid-19 has ripped through the black community and reignited calls for transformative policy for those who suffer the most.

“I want somebody that has not just the experience of how to get a bill passed, but I want somebody with the specific, explicit expertise of how to build a country and government that creates policy that is actually inclusive.”

Biden himself has not committed to picking a black woman, telling CNN’s Dana Bash: “There are women of color under consideration and there are women from every part of the country under consideration because there are a lot of really qualified women that are ready to be president. But I’m not making that commitment, I’m going to make that judgement after in fact this group goes through interviewing all these people.

The party’s left also could pose a problem for Klobuchar, who during the primary rejected the call to run on the progressive leftist policy like Medicare for All proposal and pushed for more moderate policies like creating a public option and lowering prescription drug prices.

Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist, told CNN that while Klobuchar’s might be a closer ideological match with Biden, she wouldn’t stoke enthusiasm or drive turnout from the left like other potential running mates. Katz is in favor of putting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the ticket.

“It’s hard to make the case that Amy Klobuchar would help the ticket and bring out the voters who stayed home in 2016,” Katz said. “I think folks are a little weary and the ticket needs real energy. Just because you say you’re going to win big doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”