It may not have been the most pivotal moment of Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but for many it was the most cringeworthy.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) asked the federal judge and Supreme Court nominee whether he had ever been blackout drunk. Kavanaugh, still worked up from an angry 45-minute opening statement accusing Democrats of seeking to derail his nomination, threw the question back at Klobuchar.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Have you?”
Then he did so again. He did so despite the fact that, just moments before, Klobuchar had recalled her own father’s struggles with alcoholism.
Any other senator — and especially one such as Klobuchar with potential presidential ambitions — might have sought to grandstand, even if just to make doubly certain the moment went viral. And Klobuchar could perhaps have been forgiven for a more emotional response, given her story about her father.
Instead, she allowed the moment to pass. After a break, Kavanaugh came back and apologized to her. For a moment at least, the defiant one had been disarmed by his error.
The scene at the hearing — in which Kavanaugh was defending himself against allegations of sexual assault — has at once thrust Klobuchar into the national spotlight and reinforced what could be her central shortcoming as a 2020 contender for the presidency. In a party that by most accounts is searching for liberals and powerful personalities to counteract President Trump, Klobuchar has crafted a brand almost diametrically opposed to that. In many ways, Klobuchar’s running and winning in 2020 would defy conventional wisdom, just as Trump did in 2016.
Yet more and more, she is finding herself earning strong reviews from partisan crowds, often on the strength of understated moments such as Thursday’s and the idea that she is essentially the complete antithesis of Trump. Where he’s brash, extreme and exuding machismo, she’s subtle, bookish, bipartisan and a woman in a party that is increasingly nominating female candidates.
“Amy Klobuchar is clearly one of the most successful politicians to come out of the state since Walter Mondale and Hubert H. Humphrey. She owns the state politically,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political expert at the University of Minnesota. “And it’s not force of personality; it’s channeling the concerns of Minnesota.”
It’s easy to dismiss “Minnesota nice” as an overly broad stereotype, but Klobuchar has in many ways turned it into her political brand. Local political observers say she has built a strong one by focusing on less-divisive issues and emphasizing bipartisanship and coming together.
The latter was on display Friday when Klobuchar disappeared into an anteroom during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, along with Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). By the end of it, Flake reversed course and forced Republicans to delay a floor vote in the Senate on Kavanaugh’s nomination to accommodate a brief FBI investigation — a big win for Democrats who had to that point apparently lost all hope.
She has been rewarded for that approach with an extremely strong approval rating back home. One poll last year put it at 72 percent — the highest ever in the poll’s decades-long history. Klobuchar is a virtual shoo-in for reelection this year, after which she can more publicly look to the next potential campaign.
And that popularity seems to be seeping into other areas of the country, where Klobuchar’s travels have notably increased even as she is ensuring her reelection back home.
She earned a strong reception when she showed up to a fundraising dinner at the Texas Tribune Festival on Friday. As she made her way to the head table, she was mobbed by well-wishers and followed by applause.
After the crowd settled down, John Heilemann, the host of Showtime's political documentary series “The Circus,” asked how many of the event's donors had backed Hillary Clinton for president. Nearly every hand went up. They applauded again when Heilemann mentioned the events in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Klobuchar's role.
“I asked her outside just now: What happened today?” said Heilemann. “I’m going to paraphrase what she said: We did our f---in' job.”
If the 2020 campaign were to be decided by Clinton supporters only, Klobuchar might have a good chance. Her approach is in many ways Clintonian, aiming to triangulate and avoid alienating others.
But it’s broadly believed that the moment doesn’t exactly call for that. Democrats’ 2020 contenders seem anxious to get to one another’s left, embracing single-payer health care and reforming or even getting rid of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. While nearly every other 2020 contender in the Senate has gone down that road, Klobuchar hasn’t even tried to match them.
Those Democrats who sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee approached things much more aggressively than Klobuchar did in the past few weeks. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) mused publicly about having an “I am Spartacus” moment. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) led a walkout of the proceedings Friday before a compromise was reached. At one point, both declined to vote on whether to move Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Senate floor — the only members of the committee to go that far.
In other words, the same thing that gave Klobuchar her almost impenetrable brand in Minnesota may not translate, barring a bit of a political redefinition, for her party or for herself.
“While she’s a down-the-line Democratic vote, she doesn’t have an image here as the partisan bomb-thrower,” said Minnesota Republican consultant Mark Drake. “I think Democrats are looking for someone who is the partisan bomb-thrower.
“She’s the senator next door, not the bomb-thrower next door.”
But others see in Klobuchar a probing prosecutor who could be as beguiling for Trump as she was for Kavanaugh, however briefly. MJ Hegar, a Democrat running in Texas’s Republican-leaning 31st Congressional District, said that Klobuchar’s exchange had revealed something dark about Kavanaugh’s character.
“You saw a disdain from him in the way he treated the female senators, compared to how he treated the male senators,” Hegar said. “That was distressing to me. This is someone who wants to be on the Supreme Court and deciding issues that relate to women and our freedom.”
Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock took a similar view. “It was bro-y and elitist, and privilege was oozing out of him, talking to a woman who has been elected by the people of her state,” she said. “To have him treat her like that? That’s not somebody who should be on the court. And Amy did her job.”
Meg Walsh, 57 and a candidate for the Texas Senate, agreed that Klobuchar laid bare who Kavanaugh was.
"He did not answer the question. He asked her a question,” Walsh said. “He was extremely inappropriate, and she handled it very well, staying on the facts.”
Weigel reported from Texas.