What Took So Long for These 3 Senators to Get Presidential Buzz?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Elise Amendola/AP file photo

Dean Genth knew he was making mischief when he invited Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota  to keynote the North Iowa Democrats' 10th annual Wing Ding fundraiser. He thought of her as a neighbor from the state next door and an inspiring example for Iowa, which has yet to elect a woman to the Senate or the House. But a second-term senator whose name is showing up with increasing frequency on lists of 2016 presidential prospects, speaking at a high-profile political event only about 2.5 years before the Iowa caucuses that launch the nomination race—well, he says, he wasn't surprised when his press release "kicked up a little bit of a dust storm."

If you're thinking, why Amy Klobuchar, the real question should be, why not? The same goes for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. All three have suddenly become staples of Democratic buzz and short lists, right along with Hillary Rodham Clinton. And while they may not be making as many headlines as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, or Ted Cruz, they have the records and resumes to be taken just as seriously.

The three hot Republican prospects all are first-term senators elected in 2010 or, in Cruz's case, 2012. By contrast, Klobuchar and Gillibrand were first elected to Congress in 2006 (Klobuchar to the Senate, Gillibrand to the House, before she was named to succeed Clinton in January 2009). Warren was already a national figure when she was elected last year. Yet until recently, the Democratic names in heavy circulation as potential alternatives to Clinton were Vice President Joe Biden, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Everyone knows the old joke about every senator looking in the mirror and seeing a president, and polls suggest Americans are more than ready for a woman president. So why didn't Gillibrand, Warren, and Klobuchar emerge sooner? It would be easy to blame sexism, but there are plenty of reasons unrelated to their gender. First off, they aren't governors, a CEO-type leadership position that is a frequent rung on the ladder to the White House (four of the six most recent presidents were governors). And they don't tend toward flashy gestures, like Paul's attention-grabbing filibuster protesting President Obama's drone policy. Nor do they bring ethnic or racial diversity to the presidential mix in the way of Obama in 2008. The GOP has a wealth of such prospects for 2016, including Rubio, Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the only female Republican who gets routine mentions.

And then, of course, there's Clinton, who will be receiving an award at the Wing Ding next month but has not said yet whether she will attend. Her commanding position in the field, as a former first lady, senator, secretary of State, and near-nominee in 2008, has kept the spotlight off other female prospects.

"It has nothing to do with them, their qualifications, or their ability to mount a real campaign. It has more to do with insider perceptions and the strength of Hillary Clinton," says Democratic strategist Jeff Liszt, who polled for the Madam President project sponsored by EMILY's List. "People have been so focused on Hillary."

That's different from the wide-open field on the GOP side. "You see a lot of folks newer to the political scene who are getting a lot of attention because there's no one big heavyweight there. Anybody who even thinks about booking a flight to Iowa, people immediately assume they are running for president," says Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson. She adds that if you're a Democrat with presidential aspirations, "you have to be pretty open about what your ambitions are" or risk being ignored amid the Hillary hoopla.

There are at least two blogs devoted entirely to the 2016 presidential race (yes, already) and all three women have made it onto their lists of possibles. The analysts who run the blogs, Dave Catanese at TheRun2016.com and Christian Heinze at prez16.com, say their choices are educated guesses based on research and signals from the politicians themselves. Klobuchar and Gillibrand are frequent guests on cable shows, for instance. All three women were on the Madam President list compiled by EMILY's List in May. And while Klobuchar's visit with Iowans at the Democratic convention last year could be interpreted as a neighborly gesture, that doesn't explain her meeting with delegates from the early primary state of South Carolina.

As for substance, Klobuchar won national awards for fighting crime, making drunk driving a felony, and improving school safety during two terms as Hennepin County attorney (which includes Minneapolis). In the Senate, she has championed consumer protection and promoted bipartisanship; she says she has introduced two-thirds of her bills with Republicans. "Her leadership style is different from Ted Cruz or Rand Paul. I don't think that's a liability, I think that's an asset," says Liszt.

Like Rubio, who was central to the formulation and passage of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, Gillibrand has been a pioneer on transparency (the first senator, she says, to post her official public schedule, personal financial disclosure, federal earmark requests, and annual tax returns online). She was in the forefront of efforts to repeal the military's don't ask, don't tell policy and now is leading a drive to remove sexual-assault cases from the military chain of command. She has bucked senior Democrats with her proposal to have such allegations handled by a separate prosecutor's office, and is close to securing majority support.

Warren, a former Harvard professor, oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as the bank bailout, conceived and proposed a consumer financial protection agency, saw it enacted into law in 2010, and got it off the ground. Then, having been deemed too controversial to head the new bureau, she headed home to run for the Senate. Warren has a strong liberal populist base and a broad national fundraising network, and in her first six months has gone her own way on issues such as bank regulation and student loans. That's created some headaches for her party, but she's a piker compared to the confrontational Cruz.

Catanese says there's space for up to three female candidates if Clinton decides not to run. "There's such a strong desire for a woman to be president in many Democratic constituencies, that I believe the pressure on Gillibrand and Klobuchar to run would be enormous if Hillary doesn't," he says. "Elizabeth Warren has the most hearts and minds on the left, but she's a freshman and may not be interested in the huge leap."

Klobuchar has the least national presence of the trio. Heinze offered this rationale for including her on his list: "She's a relatively pragmatic female from a Midwestern state who's a very good politician and gets along with everybody. If Hillary doesn't run and Democrats want to nominate a woman, Klobuchar would seem to be a more electable general-election candidate than someone like Elizabeth Warren."

She would also be valuable on any ticket in the role for which she jokes that Minnesota is best known: producing vice presidents. A popular female senator from a swing state—it's practically a no-brainer, especially if she has already shown an interest in national office and the ability to handle the pressure that comes with it.

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