Amy Klobuchar

(WOMENSENEWS)–In her bid to become the first woman to be elected U.S. Senator from Minnesota, Democrat Amy Klobuchar has campaigned to reduce the deficit, roll back President Bush’s tax cuts and close tax loopholes for the rich.

She advocates going after drug and oil company subsidies and stresses her character and integrity as the top prosecutor for the state’s biggest county in the race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Mark Dayton. In her eight years as Hennepin County Attorney, Klobuchar points out, she’s gone after gangs, tax cheats and child abusers, and prosecuted a corrupt judge from her own party.

“My job is to hold people accountable when they break the law,” Klobuchar says.

What Klobuchar, 46, isn’t talking about as much are typical “women’s issues” like health care, education and reproductive rights.

Despite that, a poll of likely voters conducted in mid-September showed a huge gender gap in the race, with Klobuchar leading her chief opponent, three-term Republican Congressman Mark Kennedy, by as much as 26 percentage points among likely female voters.

“I’m impressed by that result,” says Larry Jacobs, a political analyst and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, which commissioned the poll. “That 26 points is remarkable.”

In three separate polls conducted in September, Klobuchar led Kennedy by double-digit margins among all likely voters, and she held a five-point lead with male voters in the center’s poll. Independence Party candidate Robert Fitzgerald is polling in the single digits among likely voters.

Wetterling Battles for Kennedy’s Seat

Klobuchar’s opponent Kennedy, 48, grew up in a small town in north central Minnesota. He became an accountant and quickly climbed the corporate ladder. By the time he was 30 he was the senior vice president of Federated Department Stores, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mark Kennedy

He was first elected to Congress in 2000, and is now vacating his seat to run for Senate. In 2004, he fended off a challenge from child safety advocate Patty Wetterling in Minnesota’s 6th congressional district, where this year Wetterling is running against State Senator Michelle Bachman.

Kennedy has tried to distance himself from the president; in one television ad, his daughter says he’s “not much of a partier.” After the camera cuts to Kennedy wearing a paper birthday hat she adds, “I meant he doesn’t do whatever the party says to.”

Wetterling’s campaign has found a national platform in the scandal surrounding Florida Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate e-mails to House pages. After the abduction of her son Jacob in 1989, Wetterling became a national advocate for child safety. Her most recent campaign ad sharply criticizes Republican congressional leaders who she charges swept concerns about Foley’s behavior “under the rug to protect their political power.”

“I think Kennedy’s problem is this is just not the year to be running from the House as a Republican,” Duffy says. “If he’d run in say 2000 to 2004, it might not have been a problem. But this year, it’s a problem.”

Voters’ Priorities Changing

While Klobuchar is benefiting from anti-Bush sentiment and voter concerns about the war in Iraq, her lead among female voters may signal a change in voters’ priorities, Jacobs says.

The university center’s poll showed Klobuchar with a 35-point advantage over Kennedy on health care, and a 31-point advantage on education. While the state’s Democratic candidate for governor also showed a significant lead on both issues over the incumbent Republican governor, that lead was much smaller.

“What really struck me is she has this tremendous advantage on education and health care over Kennedy,” Jacobs said. “Five years after 9-11, the fear and support for the military and kind of tough national security stance seems to be giving away to a much more pragmatic home front orientation in which women candidates may have an advantage.”

The gender gap among Minnesota voters isn’t showing up in other congressional races with the exception of a few Republican primaries that matched conservatives and moderates, according to Jennifer E. Duffy, a political analyst and editor of the Cook Political Report.

Klobuchar’s popularity with women seems to be personal, Duffy says. “She’s got a bio and a resume that appeals to women voters. I think they can relate to her.”

Klobuchar, the daughter of a well-known former daily newspaper columnist and a public school teacher, grew up in suburban Minneapolis. After the birth of her daughter, she helped to win passage of legislation that made Minnesota one of the first states in the nation to guarantee new mothers 48-hour hospital stays. First elected county attorney in 1998, she advocated for Minnesota’s felony drunk driving law and for longer sentences for drug and gun crimes.

Once viewed as a Democratic stronghold, Minnesota has over the past decade become a more purple state with a senator from each party and its eight-member congressional delegation evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Legislation Fuels Debate

Kennedy voted this year to support the war and to reject a timetable for withdrawing troops. He also voted to extend Bush’s tax cuts, and is in favor of legislation making it a felony to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion, which was narrowly quashed by the Senate just before the pre-election break.

While she supported the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, Klobuchar says she did not support the war in Iraq. She doesn’t favor an immediate troop withdrawal, but does want to see a specific plan for ending the U.S. occupation. “As with any effective plan, there should be a realistic time-frame based on specific milestones and benchmarks,” she says.

One issue that is notably absent from nearly every congressional campaign, Duffy says, is abortion. Neither Klobuchar nor Kennedy has campaigned on the issue, although one Kennedy TV ad criticized Klobuchar for taking $560,000 in campaign contributions from EMILY’s List, a Washington-based political action committee which funnels money to pro-choice Democratic female candidates.

And there are several issues to be concerned about on the federal level, says Sara Fenlason, executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Campaign Fund, a bipartisan political action committee that supports pro-choice women running for office. She notes that a case involving the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 is pending before the Supreme Court, a return of legislation making it a felony to transport minors across state lines for an abortion is likely and the issue of whether pharmacists can refuse to dispense emergency contraception on moral grounds is still percolating.

“I would like to make sure that whoever is holding elective office in Minnesota will ensure that pharmacists who are there to dispense federally approved medication will dispense it without regard for their personal convictions,” Fenlason says.

J. Trout Lowen is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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For more information:

Women’s eNews Spotlight on 2006 Midterm Election Races:

Center for the Study of Politics and Governance:

The Cook Political Report:

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