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Klobuchar easily wins second term

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U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar addresses the crowd shortly before former President Bill Clinton took the stage at the University of Minnesota Duluth Kirby Student Center Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 in Duluth, Minn. Klobuchar has won a second term with a sound victory over her Republican challenger, Kurt Bills.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has won a second term defeating Republican challenger Kurt Bills by a more than 2 to 1 margin.

Klobuchar was projected as the winner just 8 minutes after polls closed, prompting Democrats at DFL headquarters in St. Paul's Crowne Plaza Hotel to note, "that was fast."

After someone came to the podium, announced, "Amy Klobuchar has won," the crowd erupted, and the campaign started handing out Amy Klobuchar signs. Shortly thereafter, Bills called her to concede the race.

In her victory speech, Klobuchar thanked her supporters and she had won re-election "the right way," with hard work and a positive and optimistic vision.

"I am truly humbled by the trust and confidence you gave me six years ago and that you have renewed with your vote today," said Klobuchar, who said her campaign was about the future of Minnesota.

"As Minnesotans we do not vote our fears, we vote our hopes," she said. "We do not vote for rhetoric, we vote for results. We don't vote for extreme ideologies, we vote for common sense. And we do not vote to go backward. We vote to go forward."

Bills conceded his longshot U.S. Senate bid against Klobuchar before a supportive crowd at the Republican Party's gathering at the Bloomington Hilton. 

Sen. Klobuchar
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar voted at Marcy Open Elementary School in Minneapolis on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Klobuchar was joined by her daughter Abigail and husband, John Bessler.
Photo by Caroline Yang for MPR

"There's no shame in not winning, the only shame is in not fighting for the things you believe in," said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge, who introduced him.

Bills secured the party's endorsement with the help of supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who challenged Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination. 

Referring to the endorsing convention, which exposed rifts in the party between traditional business-oriented Republicans and libertarian-minded Paul supporters, Bills said the party needed to unite better around future candidates.

"If we don't become the party of addition and multiplication, we will become the party of division and subtraction," said Bills. "So it's time to start learning that once you have that endorsement process, you come together and you run against the opponents. And the opponents are the blue guys, alright?"

Democrats were clearly united behind Klobuchar, whom fellow Democratic U.S. Al Franken said has served Minnesota well.

"No one works harder than Amy Klobuchar in teh Senate," Franken said.

Klobuchar cruised to victory over Bills, who was fighting an uphill battle from the start.

Minnesota Republicans said that they did not have a lot of optimism about Bill's chances, and they blame the money that the Klobuchar campaign had at its disposal.

In his long-shot bid to defeat Klobuchar, Bills hoped voters would be upset enough with the nation's financial mess to remove her from office.

But Bills, a first-term Republican state representative from Rosemount, trailed Klobuchar by 30 percent in recent polls and was millions of dollars behind in campaign financing. He ran a bare-bones campaign with little statewide name recognition.

In contrast, Klobuchar is a popular first-term senator who was able to campaign not just for herself, but also for fellow Democrats.

Given his disadvantages, many political observers considered a loss by Bills at the polls a foregone conclusion. The question for them was not whether Klobuchar would win a second term - but whether she would by a record margin.

"If Klobuchar is south of 60 percent, that will be a surprise," said Eric Ostermeier, a political science research associate at the University of Minnesota and author of the blog "Smart Politics."

Kurt and Cindy Bills
Republican Senate candidate Kurt Bills and his wife Cindy joke with an election official after they cast their ballots at Lutheran Church of Our Savior in Rosemount, Minn. Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Klobuchar, 52, became Minnesota's first female U.S. senator when she won the seat six years ago after serving as Hennepin County Attorney. During the campaign, she touted an ability to work with Republicans in Congress, at cooperative spirit that gained her supporters among some normally conservative businesspeople.

Among them are BioPlastic Solutions executives - who praised Klobuchar during her visit to the company last year - and auto dealer Paul Walser, who has endorsed her.

Bills, 42, a first-term state representative from Rosemount, portrays himself as an everyday man more interested in solving the country's financial problems than trying to raise big money.

A high school economics teacher, Bills has run a part-time campaign of sorts, teaching in the morning and campaigning the rest of the day. He hopes the fiscal-responsibility message that helped him win a crucial endorsement from U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- who sought the Republican nomination for president -- will woo working-class voters the way it did Minnesota's Republicans.

So far, Bills' main strategy seems to be pegging Klobuchar as a part of the Washington Beltway establishment that favors big business over Main Street. He said he opposed the auto bailout and federal Troubled Asset Relief Program to help financial institutions. As a result, Bills said, there "won't be a lot of rich elites" donating money to his campaign.

But portraying Klobuchar as out of touch with ordinary Minnesotans could be tough, considering the incumbent senator has an approval rating near 60 percent.

Ostermeier wrote in his "Smart Politics" blog on Oct. 19 that Klobuchar "is now poised to become just the 12th woman to reach the 60 percent mark in a senate contest in U.S. history."

In contrast, Ostermeier wrote on Oct. 31 that Bills' poll numbers put him "on track for the second worst performance by a Minnesota U.S. Senate candidate since the Great Depression."

A big problem for Bills, the researcher said, is his lack of support from his own party.

"I think the Republicans gave up on this seat years ago," Ostermeier said. Instead, Republican officials appear to be focusing more on the 2014 race for the seat occupied by U.S. Sen. Al Franken, whom they view as more vulnerable, Ostermeier said.

Another drawback for Bills is that he cannot count on a wave of enthusiasm for Republican candidates similar to the one that gave Republicans the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 to propel him to victory.

That said, Bills' statement in his debate with Klobuchar on Sunday that he disagrees with scientists who say greenhouse gas emissions are causing the earth to get warmer was not going to help him win over independents, Ostermeier said.

So seemingly alone, Bills fired shots at Klobuchar, telling voters that she is part of the fiscal mess in Washington and should have been more aggressive in working with other lawmakers to find a solution.

Bills faulted Klobuchar for voting for the Budget Control Act forged by Senate Democrats and House Republicans last summer, after House Republicans opposed raising the debt ceiling.

The compromise they came up with will trigger both dramatic tax increases and cuts in government spending on Jan. 1 - unless another deal is reached.

Bills, who said that could lead to a severe recession next year, wanted Congress to make huge cuts in federal spending to bring down the federal deficit. He said those in the current compromise are clumsy and could do more harm than good.

The criticism of Congress resonated with some voters, including Duane Kvittem, a 76-year-old retired financial services manager from Winnebago, Minn., who wants action.

"I've seen very little action out of Sen. Klobuchar," said Kvittem, a Republican who voted for Bills.

The Democratic-controlled Senate hasn't produced a budget in three years, said Kvittem, who held Klobuchar and her fellow Democrats responsible.

Bills has been unable to convey his message to more people in Minnesota, however, because he lacks the money to afford television ads.

According to campaign-finance reports publicized in mid-October, the Bills campaign had $68,262 in the bank for the final stretch of campaigning. In comparison, Klobuchar had $4.8 million on hand.

Instead, Bills pushed personal contact with voters - hitting the streets to meet people, and holding small gatherings. He traveled the campaign trail in an old blue school bus -- one of three named Constitution, Freedom and Liberty.

Late in the campaign, Bills said he believed he still had a chance to win, since voters are apt to take out their frustration on incumbents.

A Klobuchar spokesman said the senator plans to help prevent dramatic cuts to essential programs by negotiating ways to cut $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

Klobuchar has said she'd push for a combination of taxes and budget cuts. She supports elimination of the Bush-era tax cuts on income of more than $250,000 a year. She also would eliminate subsidies to oil companies, let Medicare negotiate prescription-drug prices, and put a limit to the home mortgage deduction on houses costing more than $500,000.

She also said that an agreement between President Obama, the Senate and the House to raise taxes and implement across-the-board spending cuts will force Congress to start resolving the issue before that process begins.

Her approach won support from voters like Whitney Thorpe, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom from Crystal, Minn.

Thorpe, a Democrat, said Klobuchar has done "a stellar job."

"I know that the Republicans are completely stubborn and won't compromise on anything," Thorpe said. "No matter what the Democrats do, the Republicans won't bend one inch." Klobuchar disagreed with Bills' suggestion that all taxpayers should pay essentially the same tax rate. Such a "flat tax," she said, would hit lower- and middle-income Minnesotans unfairly hard.

Despite her lead, Klobuchar never slowed down. She campaigned hard across the state to urge supporters to vote for her, fellow Democrats and against the proposed marriage and photo ID amendments.

Speaking to supporters after her victory was assured, Klobuchar said she would work to pursue a competitive agenda for the nation.

"After this very polarizing national election, we must stand together and renew our commitment and our faith in America," she said. "This means renewing our economy. It means renewing our democracy. And though it may seem like mission impossible, it means renewing Congress."

Toward that end, Klobuchar said, the nation should aim to produce more goods for the rest of the world and help its educational system give students the skills to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.

"We've had enough of the gridlock and the obstructionism," Klobuchar said. "America needs us to meet its challenges."

MPR News intern Alexander Holston contributed to this report.