NEW YORK — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) packed 70 of her top donors into a conference room overlooking Times Square this week and urged them to give more money and spread the word.
But not for her reelection — she’s got millions in her campaign chest and is leading her Republican opponent in the polls by a 2 to 1 margin. Gillibrand instead raised money for three Democratic women who have a good shot at unseating House Republicans.
As the crowd munched on salmon sandwiches and mixed greens, Gillibrand told them that the women “come from very red states and very red districts, but these are the kinds of seats that we can actually win to find that common ground, bring together and move this country forward.”
There are just 17 women serving in the Senate and 75 in the House, a slight drop from earlier years. Gillibrand told her donors that she wants more women in the House and Senate, because “if we had 50 percent of women in Congress, we would not be debating contraception. We would be debating the economy, small business, jobs, national security — everything but.”
With that, the room of mostly middle-aged and older women cheered, and some even pounded the conference table in approval.
The fundraiser Monday at the New York offices of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine raised more than $100,000 to be split between Christie Vilsack, the former Iowa first lady running against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa); Tammy Duckworth, a veteran of the Iraq war hoping to defeat Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) in the Chicago suburbs; and Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief challenging Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.).
Despite running in Republican-leaning districts, each of the women is keeping pace with the incumbents in poll numbers and in the race for campaign cash. Their odds mirror the underdog status that Gillibrand faced in 2006 when she defeated a Republican incumbent in a conservative House district in Upstate New York. Three years ago, Gillibrand was plucked from political obscurity to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as New York’s junior senator.
This year she has raised more than $14 million for her reelection, the third-largest Democratic haul, behind Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida. And Gillibrand enjoys a commanding lead in the polls over her Republican opponent, judicial activist Wendy Long, who reported just $113,000 in campaign money last quarter.
So Gillibrand can afford to spend some of her time focusing on her women’s-empowerment program and a new PAC, both called “Off the Sidelines,” to raise money for female candidates and encourage other women to take a more active role in politics or to climb the corporate ladder.
“I want to make it a call to action — asking women first and foremost to vote; second, being an advocate on the issues they care about; third, holding their lawmakers accountable on their priorities; and then hoping to get a few more to run,” Gillibrand said in a recent interview.
She is not the only female lawmaker trying to recruit more women to run for office. Gillibrand credits Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who also chairs the Democratic National Committee, for helping allay her fears about running for office as a young mother. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and helped recruit a record 11 women to run this year for the Senate.
But Gillibrand is carving out a niche by establishing her own program to boost female House and Senate candidates. Some see the effort as the beginning of a national political network that will help her one day emerge as “Hillary 2.0,” but she insists her goal is to get more women in Congress who are willing to work across the aisle.
“Women are very good at being able to find what they have in common and building from there,” she said. “In my own experience, anytime I’ve been successful in moving legislation, I’ve had the help of a Republican woman.”
Gillibrand launched her political career more than a dozen years ago at similar fundraisers headlined by Clinton and Tipper Gore, who encouraged her to jump into politics. Now she’s eager to do the same for others.
“Most men — I don’t want to say that — many men will say, ‘Of course I can do it.’ It’s the first thing out of their mouths. But a woman will always doubt herself,” she said. “It’s more in our nature to be questioning. Can this be done? Will I make a difference? That’s one of the things you have to address up front — yes, you can do it.”
In conversations before launching her campaign, Demings said, Gillibrand gave her a simple pitch: “If we’re going to help impact the decisions that are made, then we’ve got to have a seat at the table.” Vilsack said she appreciates Gillibrand’s track record: “For me, it’s just been really helpful to have somebody who I believe to be a strong person tell me it’s okay to be a strong woman.”
Duckworth, who lost a congressional bid in 2006, she said she recently attended an Off the Sidelines event in Chicago and watched Gillibrand try to persuade women in the room to run for office: “It’s great if it motivates people for the House and the Senate, but I think the most effective part of it will be if we can motivate women to run for school board or to be a trustee of their village.”
In her own race, aides said, Gillibrand plans to debate Long and to spend millions of dollars on television ads to tout her brief tenure, which includes early support for repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Last week she became the first senator to release all of her tax returns, a subtle slap at Mitt Romney’s decision to release only two years of returns and a move that could score her points with independent voters.
If she wins big this year, aides said, they know what might come next: talk of a bigger political future. In 2016, Gillibrand will be 49, much younger than other female Democrats with national ambitions.
But roughly 15 percent of New York voters still have no opinion of her performance, according to Lee Miringoff, a veteran New York pollster and director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. Miringoff said Gillibrand “is not yet a major force in New York” — a state that includes Clinton, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and a popular governor, Andrew M. Cuomo (D).
Gillibrand did not rule out one day running for higher office, but she said she already has a 2016 scenario in mind.
“I really want Hillary to run in 2016. I think she’d be an extraordinary president, and I’m going to certainly ask her to run,” she said. “And if she does, I will be hopefully one of her major supporters and participants.”