Will Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) run for president in 2020? She has been quick to clamp down on any speculation about a 2020 bid. But her actions suggest otherwise. Gillibrand has staked out a particularly anti-Trump voting record in the Senate, which could distinguish her brand when Democrats start culling the herd for their 2020 nominee.
There’s a lot of progressive chatter about Gillibrand
A Democrat hoping to run for president might have a strategy of tacking noticeably to the left — in an attempt to grab the attention and enthusiasm of the progressive activists most likely to work for her and vote in the primaries. And Gillibrand has been doing precisely that. She was the first senator to call for Al Franken (D-Minn.) to step down, has been criticizing Bill Clinton’s failure to resign over allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct, and was an early supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for all” bill. Earlier in December, she called on President Trump to resign over numerous credible allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, to which Trump responded with an insult- and insinuation-laden tweet reaction.
Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office “begging” for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 12, 2017
But wait, there’s more — several actions piquing the interest of party activists. In Illinois, Gillibrand endorsed a progressive challenger to incumbent Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski on November 17 — even before the challenger, Marie Newman, had filed petitions with the Illinois State Board of Elections to run. Gillibrand has also taken notably progressive stands in the Senate. Along with Sanders (I-Vt.) and only four other Democrats, Gillibrand voted against the massive annual defense bill. And she unveiled a plan with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to ban states from passing “right-to-work” laws, which enable workers in unionized shops to refuse to pay dues, a major conservative priority.
This is how we measured Gillibrand’s anti-Trump record
But those are just anecdotes. To assess Gillibrand’s potential presidential ambitions more systematically, we examined senators’ voting patterns for 2017.
We start with a voting system known as DW-NOMINATE, which scales lawmakers’ career voting records ideologically. We also use FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score, a measure that detects how frequently senators vote in line with Trump when he or his administration take a clear position on votes before the Senate, for the whole of 2017. Trump scores include votes on a range of matters that make it to the Senate floor: bills that Trump endorses, instances in which Vice President Pence breaks a Senate tie, confirmation votes on Trump’s Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees, and efforts to override his vetoes.
Most of Gillibrand’s notable or unexpected votes against Trump have been cast against his nominees — such as her lone vote against Jim Mattis’s confirmation as secretary of defense. More recently, Gillibrand voted against a stopgap bill to fund the government into January, citing the bill’s failure to address the fate of “dreamers.” She was also one of only four Democrats and Sanders who voted against the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. This vote was not included in the Trump Score, which suggests that the measure may understate her anti-Trump record.
Gillibrand’s record is particularly anti-Trump — even for a blue-state Democrat
In the figure below, we map each Democratic senator’s Trump Score against Trump’s share of the 2016 vote in their state. The comparison allows us to know how much more or less supportive of Trump a senator votes relative to the views of their home state. Overall, variation in Trump’s statewide vote accounts for nearly 60 percent of the variation in their Trump Scores. In other words, Democratic senators’ anti-Trump voting is roughly, though not entirely, in line with their constituents’ level of Trump opposition.
But Gillibrand’s votes place her far below the line in the graph. In other words, her voting record is more anti-Trump than you’d expect, given the proportion of Trump voters in New York state. Notably, the other senator from New York, Charles E. Schumer, voted with Trump nearly a quarter of the time — more than twice Gillibrand’s 9 percent rate. Schumer’s job as Democratic leader might increase the burden on him to support deals he negotiates with the Republicans. But Gillibrand is markedly more anti-Trump than even Warren and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — both progressives who are frequently mentioned as potential 2020 candidates.
Gillibrand votes even more consistently against Trump than do her liberal colleagues
As the figure below shows, anti-Trump voting and DW-NOMINATE correlate quite well: the more liberal the senator, the more anti-Trump.
Senators above the line vote with Trump more often than their career voting record would predict. Many such Democratic senators are up for reelection in states that Trump won: by 42 points for West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III, 36 points for North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, 19 points for Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, and 21 points for Montana’s Jon Tester. Other exceptions are so liberal that an extra vote or two for Trump’s nominees puts them above the line, as is true, for instance, for California’s Kamala D. Harris.
Here, Gillibrand is a stark outlier. Over her nine years in the Senate, she has had a reasonably liberal voting record. But she has been especially anti-Trump over the past year. For instance, Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the two senators closest to her ideological record, voted with Trump about a quarter of the time — nearly three times as often as Gillibrand.
For most Democratic senators, you can get a good idea of how often they’ll vote for Trump’s agenda by looking at their career voting record or Trump’s performance in their state. But for Gillibrand, these relationships only partly explain her anti-Trump stances during Trump’s first year in office. We need some other factor to explain her particularly anti-Trump stance — like positioning herself to be the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2020, running to the left.
This post has been updated.
Sean McElwee is a researcher and writer based in New York. He tweets at @SeanMcElwee.
Jon Green is a PhD student in political science at Ohio State University. Find him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green.