Sen. Amy Klobuchar sees improving roads and levees as path to presidency
PACIFIC JUNCTION, Iowa - The rain started on St. Patrick's Day, and didn't stop until Jason and Fran Parr's century-old house near the Iowa-Nebraska border was knee-deep in cold, murky water. They managed to wade in to rescue family photos of their twin 4-year-olds, but most everything else was lost.
For 11 years, the levees had been enough to protect their home from the worst flooding of the Missouri River. This time, they weren't.
On Friday, after another surreal day spent taking in her loss, Fran Parr found herself hugging Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota. Then, for the rest of the weekend and into this week, Parr's story became part of the presidential candidate's stump speech.
"I will never forget when she said, 'But I loved my kitchen," Klobuchar told Democrats in Council Bluffs a few hours after meeting the Parrs, a description she would repeat Monday at a liberal multicandidate event in Washington. "She is literally 2 1/2 miles from the river. And that [flooding] happened because that levee broke."
The solution, Klobuchar said, is a trillion-dollar plan that she says would fix or bolster public infrastructure like the levees she said were supposed to protect the Parrs' home.
The proposal, announced last week, is an attempt by Klobuchar to prevent more floods like this month's, which have ruined houses and turned vast swaths of farmland into ponds, with an estimated $1.6 billion in damage. And it is a metaphor for her campaign, which has eschewed pizzaz and trendier topics to emphasize Klobuchar's penchant for solutions, often bipartisan, on issues that can be basic to voters.
The infrastructure plan seemed aimed squarely at waterlogged Iowans, who saw 57 of the state's 99 counties flooded last month and who are crucial to Klobuchar's attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Klobuchar - who alternately described herself as "the senator next door" and a "heartland candidate" - is selling herself as a Midwestern native with a home-field advantage who can deliver strategically important rural and Midwestern voters in 2020. She played up those roots again on Monday, at the We the People Summit hosted by liberal groups in Washington.
Winning Iowa may be her best shot, though it is by no means a sure thing. According to a Des Moines Register poll, only 6 percent of potential Iowa Democratic caucus voters said Klobuchar would be their first or second choice.
Throughout her Iowa trip, Klobuchar did not say whether a bad showing in Iowa would doom her presidential aspirations. She said the infrastructure issues she talks about, including in her announcement speech, matter as much to subway riders in New York as they do to soybean farmers in Iowa. But on the campaign trail, she is quick to point out the electoral math.
"I think there's one other candidate in this now that's from the Midwest, and I think we all know how important the Midwest is to victory, including states like Wisconsin and states like Iowa, and states like Ohio and Minnesota," she said.
She told voters in Council Bluffs that her home-state victories show her appeal to voters across the political spectrum.
"I'm someone who has won in numerous counties and in numerous elections where there are really Republican counties and independent voters, and there are very few candidates in the race that have done that," she said. "And as I noted, I've won every congressional district in my state three times in a row . . . and I am someone that finds common ground and tries to get things done."
Klobuchar is not the only one working to appeal to voters in the heartland 10 months before the first caucus.
Last weekend, she joined three other candidates who talked about rural issues at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., announced an agricultural policy plan last week that she says will help Iowa family farmers by slicing up agricultural monopolies. And former congressman John Delaney, D-Md., also rolled out a proposal heavy on rural infrastructure that he says would greatly help the Hawkeye state. Other candidates, such as Beto O'Rourke, have said they will go to rural Iowa counties that haven't had a visit from a Democratic candidate for president in years.
For President Donald Trump, Midwest support remains strong. In 2016, he won Iowa and Ohio by comfortable margins and also won Wisconsin and Michigan. He barely lost Illinois.
Jane Kleeb, the chairwoman of Nebraska's Democratic Party, said that fellow party activists in rural states had been clamoring for more of a focus on rural voters - especially as the president's tariff policies hurt his appeal with them. While she did not want candidates to pander to rural states, she said candidates who understand rural issues have an edge.
"The reality is if you come from a rural state that has agriculture as a main economic driver, you know those issues much better," Kleeb said.
Klobuchar's infrastructure proposal would use tax subsidies, loan guarantees and federal dollars to help local and state governments repair bridges, roads, highways and water systems and bring Internet access to remote areas. She would pay for it in part by increasing the corporate tax rate.
Voters said they saw Klobuchar's plan as more than just smoothing out pockmarked streets. Working roads, reliable transit and speedy broadband are key to attracting businesses and residents to rural areas - and keeping them there.
"We've got to go down and fix our foundations, make sure our water mains are working, make sure we're not sucking cars down into giant holes in the street," said Ben Gray, an Omaha City Council member who attended a Klobuchar event at a union hall. "I think that message is going to be heard here especially because of the flooding."
Andrew Nostvick, 31, a member of the Montgomery County Democrats, said rural residents already are trailing their urban counterparts.
"It's not a matter of falling behind. We're already behind. The question is: How do we catch up?"
Still, some voters worried that Klobuchar needs to show morethan an affinity forfixing potholes in Des Moines and levees across the state.
Jan Stanton, who attended a Klobuchar event in Council Bluffs, said she liked the candidate enough to leave with a Klobuchar yard sign. Still, she wants to see a wider platform that goes beyond the Midwest.
"All of that worked in Minnesota, and in a statewide election, and of course it resonates with us; we're from here," Stanton said. "But nationally, I don't know how it will do."
In nearby Iowa towns still drying out, Klobuchar heard a simpler message from residents: Deliver.
Scott Mitchell, the mayor of Hornick, a town in northwest Iowa that flooded so bad "you could float a boat down Main Street," said he was reserving judgment until he sees whether Klobuchar and others in power offer more to his town than their sympathy.
He met Klobuchar at a firefighters' pancake breakfast benefiting flood victims. Two days after the worst flood he could remember - before help came from the federal or state governments - his town members and people who build hog farming lagoons used massive pumps to drain water from inhabited areas.
Later, at a drying-out bar and restaurant Mitchell was inspecting for the telltale smell of mold, he issued a warning to Klobuchar and any other politician who would take selfies with frazzled residents to score political points, then vanish:
"If you say you're going to do something, I'm going to hold you to it."
This article was written by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., a reporter for The Washington Post.