FALLS CHURCH, Virginia—Some of the loudest cheers during Amy Klobuchar’s latest pitch to Virginia voters were not for her lines lambasting President Donald Trump. Or for her pitch about getting things done in the Senate. Or for her rehearsed jokes.
Sure, those all got ample applause. But something else caught voters’ attention here at the State Theatre on Friday afternoon. That is, the packed audience collectively erupted in cheers when the senator remarked that she is, in fact, “the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Minnesota.”
In one respect, the line is just another part of Klobuchar’s usual stump speech, something voters who have heard her shtick multiple times know to be true. And while voters routinely clap at the mention of that distinction, her gender is seldom referenced as the top reason to vote for her. In fact, her ability to drop a reference about being a woman casually and move on to other perceived selling points is one of her biggest draws, voters here said.
“I don’t need to have the obvious stated,” Susan Hageman, a resident from Falls Church who recently decided to vote for Klobuchar said when asked about the senator’s relative lack of emphasis on gender, compared to, say, Hillary Clinton’s approach in 2016.
“I can tell her gender. We have a glass ceiling to break, I hope it’s going to happen,” Hageman added, wanting to move on to Klobuchar’s policies on a range of subjects.
That feeling of why say it when everyone can already tell she’s a woman was also shared among men interviewed from a pack of 1,300 attendees who showed up ahead of Super Tuesday. While some acknowledged that gender plays a role in electoral politics, most praised the senator for not spending too much time talking about it. Her moderate policies, the majority of voters interviewed said, play a greater role in their decision-making process.
“A balance of it is important,” Chris Pikrallidas, a Falls Church resident deciding between Klobuchar and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said of the senator’s ability to toggle between identity and policy. “By doing that, it lowers barriers in terms of being able to relate to people that are different than you. She’s going to be the president for everybody,” he added. “In that way, her gender doesn’t get in the way of her qualifications.”
Following Clinton’s general election loss four years ago, the desire to elect the first female president is stronger than ever for some. But with that comes caution. Seeing the former secretary of state win the popular vote to Trump but lose the electoral college has set off a spook factor that calls into question not necessarily whether a woman can win at the top of the ticket but if emphasizing gender on the trail is the best way to do it.
“I think it’s smart not to dwell on that,” said Lloyd Franklin, a Fairfax County resident deciding between Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden. “She’s the best candidate,” he said. “It’s really not an issue.”
Jay Sotos, a McLean voter, seemed to agree. “She’s very balanced and there’s no gender emphasis either way,” Sotos said. “She’s a logical speaker and talker. That kind of speaks to men. Not super, super emotional. And I’m saying that in a good way.”
Part of the three-term senator’s biggest pitch to voters is her own form of an electability argument that, indirectly, debunks the notion that a woman cannot win (and win often). By frequently referencing winning down-ballot districts in Minnesota that went for Trump during the last election, Klobuchar offers a results-driven message that is one of her strongest selling points. And, paired with a strong debate performance just before the primary, it’s part of what’s helped her beat expectations in some areas so far.
Nearly three weeks after her surprise third finish in New Hampshire, Klobuchar sought to squeeze every last drop of the momentum she got from 500 miles away by reminding new voters about her ability to outperform expectations. (Even the field organizer who opened for Klobuchar on Friday had a hand in her third-place finish: “In New Hampshire we were calling people to get them to volunteer here,” she said. “Persuasion is key.”)
On paper, parts of Virginia are electorally ripe for Klobuchar, with moderate blue and red strongholds alike. Suburban women, in particular, a traditionally strong base for Klobuchar, are seen as wielding influence in determining who will win the general election. And by travel, money, and staffing metrics, the senator appears to be prioritizing the state: She’ll be in Richmond and Norfolk on Saturday, and her campaign is running four television ads leading up to March 3, where the fourth largest delegate haul is up for grabs.
But despite pulling strong numbers of both women and men in New Hampshire, she’ll likely face a tougher road here.
A few hours before Klobuchar took the stage, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) offered his endorsement of Biden, one of Klobuchar’s top competitors vying for more centrist-leaning Democratic voters. And polling released after her New Hampshire boomlet has her in sixth place, well behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Bloomberg. She’s 4 percent behind Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), whom Klobuchar beat out in New Hampshire but is currently at 11 percent in averages in Virginia.
But unlike Warren, who has explicitly ramped up her pitch to become the first female president over the past several months, Klobuchar has taken a decidedly different approach by mentioning it without strategizing around it explicitly.
“I’m proud to be a woman candidate, but I’m not running to be the first woman,” Klobuchar said in an appearance on The View, a talk show aimed at women, in December. “I’m actually running to have your backs and to get things done.” She has since reiterated similar remarks at campaign stops on the trail.
“Our people want to win. And if they think ‘Oh, can a woman really win?’ you gotta start discussing that. But it’s not the theme of why I should win,” Klobuchar said at a stop in New London, New Hampshire, several months ago. “I want to run on my merits.”
But that’s not to say she’s shied away from the notion altogether. At one point during a November debate, Klobuchar denounced the double standard women candidates face. “Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him,” she said in reference to former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, before pivoting. “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise, we could play a game called name your favorite woman president, which we can’t do because it has all been men.”
The resounding cheers to Klobuchar’s earlier line—that she became the first female senator elected in her state—provides an audible, albeit imperfect, assessment that men who showed up to hear her speak agree that her success on that front is a positive thing. But one-on-one interviews reveal the complexity of the subject.
“I frankly hadn't even noticed that,” Dave Donovan, a voter from McLean, said when asked about Klobuchar not making a gender-based argument front and center of her campaign. “Maybe it’s not as relevant to me, frankly. Everyone knows she’s a woman, why do you really need to say it?” he added, praising Klobuchar’s approach.
“If you overdo it, it would be detrimental to her chances,” Pikrallidas speculated, adding that he feels the senator has struck the right tone in her candidacy.
Klobuchar has emphasized that she polls well with men. In 2018, she won 52 percent of all white men in Minnesota, according to a CNN exit poll. And a Mason-Dixon survey in the state from October 2019 shows that she is the best positioned to beat Trump. She reportedly noted in a subsequent speech that she performed the best with men there than any other Democrat running in that poll.
Somewhat ironically, gender is at the crux of why several male voters initially said they took an interest in Klobuchar, but for an entirely different reason. Her performance during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, during which psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford alleged that he sexually assaulted her in high school, made them examine her presidential bid.
At one point during the days-long televised event, Kavanaugh attempted to flip the script and question Klobuchar, a former prosecutor who sits on the Judiciary Committee, about her drinking habits when his own alcohol consumption became part of the national dialogue.
Two years later, the moment still resonates strongly with some men.
“I didn’t really know who she was until my wife pointed her out to me,” Sotos said, referencing the hearings. “I kind of tuned in with my wife’s help.”