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Kirsten Gillibrand Is 2020’s Misfit

More women are running for president than ever. But there’s no one way to do it. This is the second article in a series exploring the way that the female candidates in the 2020 race are navigating questions of identity, sexism and public critique.

As a child, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand recalls being mesmerized by the jiggly arms of middle-aged women stuffing envelopes with political mailers. This is part of her stump speech — a thing you start to notice about Gillibrand is that she seems quite alive to the physicality of being a woman in the world. She talks about the haircuts she got that law firm bosses praised instead of her work, and the indignity of being underestimated by her first political opponent as “just another pretty face” (perhaps not coincidentally, also a humblebrag). In her 2014 book, she mentions her weight — and other people mentioning her weight — well over a dozen times.

Gillibrand might have thought that 2018’s “year of the woman” fervor would sweep along her presidential campaign. Her most high-profile political battles have been about the injustices — large and small — facing women. If voters know her, it’s likely for her fight with the Pentagon on military sexual assault (her reform bill was defeated in 2014) or for when she became “the senator from the state of #MeToo” when she was the first — though not the last — Democratic senator to call for Al Franken to resign.

Behind the crusading work for women is a pragmatic political career. Since her start in politics as an upstate New York congresswoman, Gillibrand evolved her position on guns and immigration. On the trail, Gillibrand talks a lot about how electable she is given the fact that she won 18 Trump-voting counties in her 2018 Senate campaign. But being electable in your home state in 2018 doesn’t necessarily mean you’re electable in a 2020 presidential primary. Gillibrand is currently polling at a dismal 0.5 percent average in polls. Something hasn’t clicked. It might be that Gillibrand’s attempt to mix her activist instincts with a moderate’s pragmatism is too odd a pairing for today’s Democratic Party.


New Hampshire’s highway medians were carpeted with purple lupine and clots of daisies when I caught Gillibrand on a swing through the state in mid-June. Six months into her campaign, she was still playing small venues like The Franklin Studio coffee shop in Franklin, New Hampshire. (Down the street was Granite State Hedgehogs, a purveyor of actual, factual hedgehogs.)

Mike and Pat Kane, retirees from northern Massachusetts, sat in the back of a small room filled with tchotchkes, waiting for Gillibrand to arrive. They hadn’t picked a candidate yet but were intrigued enough by Gillibrand to have made the drive from out of state. Pat described the couple as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative. “We’re not interested in the warriors,” Mike said, meaning Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

While she’s tried hard to make a splash in the overly crowded field, Gillibrand is still introducing herself to voters (her name recognition is in the middle of the pack among 2020 contenders). Gillibrand’s stump speech is heavy on biography, with quick homages to her politicking grandmother and her turkey-shooting mother before a mention of how foolish her 2008 congressional opponent was to launch attack ads on the pregnant mother of a toddler. (Later, Gillibrand told me that her strategy is to overcome media storylines by burrowing into the hearts and minds of as many early state voters as possible: “I have a chance to win them over regardless of what’s going on in the national narrative, so I can break through.”)

There isn’t really a mention of the #MeToo movement in Gillibrand’s stump speech, though she does cite Hillary Clinton’s “women’s rights are human rights” speech as the inspiration for the start of her political career. It’s a fraught reference masquerading as a banal one. In 2017, Gillibrand said Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency because of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. That, along with some of Gillibrand’s other outspoken statements during the height of the #MeToo movement, has in many ways backfired for her politically. Her Clinton comments raised the ire of both Clinton allies and party donors. One prominent Clinton adviser called Gillibrand a “hypocrite” for taking the “Clintons’ money, endorsements and seat,” a reference to the fact that Gillibrand was appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009 when she became secretary of state for President Obama.

Many traditional large-dollar donors in the party reacted adversely to Gillibrand’s Franken comments, and in an April campaign memo, her team acknowledged that her fundraising “was adversely impacted by certain establishment donors — and many online — who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.” Gillibrand has continued to struggle with donations and only recently met the 65,000 individual donor threshold for the first debate. Inexperienced candidates Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson both met the metric before Gillibrand.

Gillibrand’s “Brave Wins” slogan seems to reference her trailblazing on issues and her ability to weather harsh criticism (and to take on Trump). But in a primary that has increasingly become about “big idea” reimaginings of American institutions — the health care system, the Electoral College, consumer finance protections, college tuition and debt — she has gotten somewhat lost in the 24-person shuffle. While Gillibrand introduced a paid family leave act this year, it’s not one of the marquee issues of the primary campaign. Her most high-profile work is centered on concerns perceived as affecting women most — sexual harassment, sexual assault — but it’s fellow Democratic contender Sen. Kamala Harris who has most recently grabbed headlines for a plan that would place the burden of equal pay on companies rather than on under-compensated individuals (typically women). In some ways, the progressive drift of the party on issues of identity and gender leaves Gillibrand as part of a progressive pack rather than a leader on gender equality issues. Where Democratic candidates make the most splash seems to be on issues of the economy, often on capitalism itself. Gillibrand has adopted many of the new progressive ideas, but she hasn’t trailblazed on them.

Perhaps that’s why she’s tacking back to a posture of moderation. The bills that Gillibrand mentioned in New Hampshire aren’t necessarily flashy ones, but they have a specific audience in mind. “In the last Congress, I passed 18 bills with a Republican House, Senate and President signing them into law. Those are common-sense bills, like rural broadband, money for made-in-America manufacturing, money for small businesses — things that can actually make a difference in places like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania,” she said.

Gillibrand had just finished her second event of the day at a bar in Plymouth and we sat across from each other at a high-top table. Earlier she had called herself “the most electable candidate” in the field and I asked Gillibrand whether she worried if the political environment had changed such that a liberal woman from New York is seen as too culturally far afield from swing voters in the Midwest. “Not at all. I think I’m perfect for those voters, in fact, because I’ve been representing those rural places in this climate for the past 10 years.”

When she represented her upstate congressional district 10 years ago, Gillibrand had an “A” rating from the NRA and was against protections for sanctuary cities. She quickly changed those positions to jibe with her downstate constituents, a move that got her plenty of critique as disingenuous. That rapid evolution is part of what makes her 2020 campaign trail mix of progressivism and professed moderate appeal so interesting — it’s high-risk moderation, given that Gillibrand has already been labeled pliable to the whims of the electorate at any given moment.

“I honestly think that Sen. Gillibrand is closer to Kirsten Gillibrand the human being than the congresswoman was,David Paterson, the former governor of New York who appointed Gillibrand to her Senate seat told me. Her mistake, Paterson said, had been that she didn’t manage the ideological transition well in public. “You supervise your own evolution,” he said of politicians.

I was in New Hampshire on one of the last days of motorcycle week. Fairly or not, Trump has become associated with the biker community, at times hinting that they might serve as enforcers of a kind (for what and because of what is never clear). Heading to Gillibrand’s Plymouth bar event, I passed a “Live Free and Dine” sign and a gaggle of bikers. The roads were lousy with Harleys, too, which made the appearance of a white Audi with a Pod Save America “Friend of the Pod” bumper sticker on the road from Franklin to Plymouth all the more striking. Gillibrand’s proposed coalition is, if you are to believe her, Trump sympathizers and Democratic establishment liberals. Given the cultural and political divisions of America in 2019, it’s hard to imagine the two groups crossing into Gillibrand’s lane, whatever that lane is. As the senator might say with a pepped-up grin, “It’s so early.” She’s still hoping for her moment.

Check out the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections, including all the Democratic primary polls.

From ABC News:

Gillibrand visits GA after speaking out against abortion bans

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.