A mismatched Senate race for Klobuchar and Bills

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar greets delegates during her entrance at the DFL state convention in Rochester on Saturday, June 2, 2012. Klobuchar won the DFL endorsement and will face Kurt Bills in the upcoming election.
MPR Photo/Alex Kolyer

Over the weekend Minnesota Democrats endorsed U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's bid for re-election. Klobuchar is one of the most popular senators in the country, and despite Republican claims she's vulnerable, political analysts agree she's a virtual shoo-in for re-election.

There's little question that Minnesota is politically split -- results of the last two major statewide elections confirm it. In 2008 the U.S. Senate race resulted in a prolonged recount and court battle. The 2010 governor's race was headed toward a recount until Republicans conceded.

But despite that recent history, it's difficult to find a political analyst who thinks Minnesota is headed toward another close election this year.

"Amy Klobuchar is, right now, as safe an incumbent as is up this November," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. Sabato boasts a nearly perfect record in recent House and Senate election predictions. He has no idea whether Democrats will hold on to control of the Senate, but he's convinced Klobuchar will be there for a second term.

"I'm glad that my career doesn't depend on races like Minnesota's because I wouldn't have anything to do," he says.

In 2006 Klobuchar beat her Republican challenger by more than 20 percentage points. The same year Republican Tim Pawlenty won the governor's race by less than 1 percent. There have been no recent public polls, but since Klobuchar took office, Minnesotans have consistently given her strong approval ratings.

Still, state Rep. Kurt Bills, the Republican-endorsed candidate running against Klobuchar, says he thinks she will be vulnerable this fall.

Last week Bills filed his election paperwork with the Minnesota Secretary of State's office.

Bills, a Rosemount High School economics teacher, repeated the principal theme of his campaign: Klobuchar is on the wrong side of deficit spending.

Republican State Convention 2012
Kurt Bills wins the U.S. Senate candidate endorsement at the Republican state convention on Friday, May 18, 2012, in St. Cloud.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"My motivation has been in the classroom that I've taught, where I've taught economics for the last 15 years," Bills says. "We need to start putting forward solutions to the giant element that faces us, the giant problems that face us in terms of deficit and debt."

For the past five-and-a-half years Klobuchar has focused on popular issues like consumer protection. She is also known for reaching out to Minnesota businesses.

After her endorsement at the DFL state convention, Klobuchar promised an aggressive re-election campaign despite the advantages she has going into the campaign.

"I take nothing for granted," she says.

Klobuchar takes credit for working across party lines and says she does not apologize for her approach to government spending. "I am not one of the Democrats that just wants to think we can pretend this is not happening," Klobuchar says.

She cites her support for the creation of the debt commission and her work with 45 other senators, half of them Republicans, toward what she calls a "balanced" solution to the federal budget.

"And it's going to be a mix of spending cuts and revenue and they are all kinds of things we can do," she added.

In addition to enjoying relatively strong job approval, Klobuchar has a lot of money to promote herself and defend against Republican attacks. Federal Election Commission records show she ended the first quarter of the year with nearly $5.2 million in campaign cash. That's 100 times more than Bills had.

But at the time of the last report Bills had been in the race for less than a month, and it's likely Bills' endorsement from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, will help him raise money, just as it helped him win the Republican endorsement two weeks ago.

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report says while Bills' association with Paul is helping him now, it will cost him support in the long run.

"I mean it almost guarantees that Bills will not get a single independent vote and will not get any moderate Republican support," Duffy says.

Duffy is among the outside handicappers who are convinced Klobuchar will easily win re-election. She says she expects the senator will campaign hard for herself and other Democrats.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.