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How Kirsten Gillibrand Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

On Tuesday, under the hot TV lights of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tossed her hat into the presidential ring, declaring that she’s forming an exploratory committee.

Gillibrand is one of several Democratic women expected to run, and her campaign will make its central appeal to women voters. But given the oft-times gendered dynamics of the 2016 presidential campaign, Gillibrand is likely to face challenges because of her gender and her vocal support of the #MeToo movement. A politician who has shifted her politics in tandem with the ever-liberalizing Democratic base, Gillibrand could open herself up to charges that she has changed positions opportunistically. Still, she remains in the top tier of contenders in the primary field because of her fundraising power and active decade in national politics.

Gillibrand’s primary play lies with women voters, who make up almost 60 percent of the Democratic base. She has long made issues affecting women a centerpiece of her policy portfolio. Starting during the Obama administration, Gillibrand pushed to reform how the military handles instances of sexual assault in its ranks and consistently introduced bills for paid family leave during her tenure in the Senate. Her advocacy for women also broke through in a politically explosive way in 2017, when she was the first Democratic senator to call for fellow Democrat Sen. Al Franken to resign after allegations that he had groped women emerged.

“The lesson of 2018 is that the future of the Democratic Party is with women,” a Gillibrand campaign official recently said. A historically high number of women ran for Congress in the midterms, and 116 won their elections — 100 of them Democrats. Such was the power of the “resistance,” a loose collective of groups that one study found to be made up of just the kinds of voters Gillibrand is likely banking on: educated white suburban women.

White college-educated women have been voting for Democrats at increasing rates — 59 percent voted for a Democratic U.S. House candidate in 2018, up from the 51 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Gillibrand is a white college-educated woman herself (she attended Dartmouth for undergrad and UCLA for law school) and one who makes it a point to talk about motherhood and her own children often. So it’s easy to see how Gillibrand might appeal to this newly politically activated demographic.

Gillibrand’s politics have become increasingly left-leaning over her career, but she has maintained an appeal to the more moderate-to-conservative parts of her state, a trend that could bode well as she sets out on a national campaign. Gillibrand won re-election in 2018 with 67 percent of the vote, outperforming Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who won with 59.6 percent. Gillibrand also overperformed Clinton’s 2016 vote share in New York; Clinton got 59 percent of the vote. New York is a state that is politically bifurcated by geography — its upstate counties, which Gillibrand calls home, are more conservative than the downstate New York City greater metropolitan area. This urban-rural split mirrors the rest of the country, and the fact that Gillibrand has performed well in rural counties — in 2018, she won counties that Clinton lost to Donald Trump — could be positive for her.

Gillibrand has also poured significant resources into women candidates around the country, a tactic that could pay campaign dividends. In 2012, she started an organization and a PAC called Off the Sidelines (later the name of her 2014 book) that aimed to get women into politics and give to women candidates. In 2018, her PAC spent nearly $1.6 million, including generous donations to Iowa and New Hampshire candidates, useful states in which to have debts of gratitude owed to you in 2020.

So what could go wrong for Gillibrand? For starters, she’s not doing well in the (very) early polls. The recent CNN/Des Moines Register Iowa/Mediacom Poll showed Gillibrand polling at less than 1 percent with likely caucus-goers. (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke were the top vote-getters.) That could be as much about name recognition as anything else — 55 percent of respondents said they were not sure how they felt about Gillibrand, compared with only 4 percent for Biden. In a December interview on CNN, Gillibrand said it was worrying that the top three vote-getters were men. “I aspire for our country to recognize the beauty of our diversity at some point in the future, and I hope someday we have a woman president,” she said.

Gillibrand will surely have to contend with sexism during her campaign, along with the other women who run. In 2016, Trump lambasted Clinton, saying: “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.” In 2017, Trump tweeted about Gillibrand, calling her a “lightweight” and saying she “would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them),” which many interpreted as having demeaning sexual implications.

Popular coverage of women politicians has sometimes focused on perceptions of them through the traditionally feminine lens, homing in on their looks, family life and competence. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 running mate, received a great deal of attention for her looks and clothes while Clinton weathered decades-long implications that her political ambitions were off-putting.

Gillibrand has leaned into the media and popular culture’s interest in her womanhood. When she lost 40 pounds after her second pregnancy, she told magazines all about it and then wrote in her book about Senate colleagues’ insensitive comments: “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.”

Gillibrand’s outspokenness about the #MeToo movement’s turn to politics has made her some powerful enemies, though. She has run into trouble with some of the traditional Democratic Party donors upset with her outspokenness over Franken’s resignation, and Clinton allies were furious when Gillibrand said President Bill Clinton should have resigned over his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. (A recent report noted that Gillibrand is courting potential Wall Street donors, perhaps trying to make up lost ground on fundraising.) While angering big-money donors could mean trouble — presidential campaigns are rather expensive and big checks help — it could also boost her credibility with grassroots supporters in a moment when small-dollar donations can help fuel national campaigns (see, Sanders and Trump).

Another challenge to Gillibrand in a Democratic primary is her record. Her political career began in 2007 in the House, where she served an upstate congressional district. Gillibrand’s political positions at the time were much more conservative, and she was among the least liberal members of the Democratic caucus in the House, ranking 209th out of 241 during her 2007-09 term. She held an “A” rating from the NRA and was against protections for sanctuary cities. When Gillibrand was appointed to Clinton’s Senate seat, some on the left were outraged. But she made a quick switch in her ideology, embracing a range of liberal policies and seeing her NRA rating downgraded to an “F.” As of December 2017, she was the seventh-most liberal member of the 46-person Democratic caucus. There could be some worry that her voting history — or her hasty disavowal of it — could be used against her by primary opponents battling to prove their liberal bona fides.

At the very least, Gillibrand has had a decade-long presence on the national stage, has been covered heavily by political media and is known by party insiders around the country. That could ease her campaign’s task of increasing voter awareness of the senator, an all-important undertaking as the field of contenders grows.

From ABC News:

‘People need a pathway to citizenship,’ Gillibrand says of Trump’s proposal

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.