But her campaign never caught on, overshadowed by two women now among the four leading candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), whose fundraising has outpaced most other contenders. Gillibrand had problems other candidates did not.
As The New York Times reported on Wednesday, “Ms. Gillibrand found herself shunned by a class of powerful Democratic Party donors — who had once been supportive of her political ambitions — after she called on Al Franken of Minnesota to resign from the Senate amid allegations of groping and other sexual misconduct toward women.”
It is tempting for some commentators to point to that or to lingering sexism to explain her performance, but many of the candidates in this race are failing and the ones who dropped out first, it just so happened, were white men. Warren and Harris remain among the upper tier of candidates, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) continues to grind along. Their success in reaching the top 10 suggests that Democrats are more than willing to embrace a female nominee.
Frankly, the more female candidates for the presidency, the greater the range of outcomes will be. Some will flounder, others will take off and still others will fall somewhere in between. Like the men, female candidates have earned the opportunity both to fail and succeed.
Did Gillibrand’s shift to the left after leaving her upstate House seat for the Senate hurt her? I’m not sure voters got to know her well enough to discover that fact. Might a blond, progressive senator from New York have too closely resembled Hillary Clinton and simply stirred up bad memories of 2016? It’s possible.
The sounder explanation, I suggest, is that in a huge field of nearly two dozen candidates, including a former vice president, as well as other female senators to whom she would inevitably be compared, Gillibrand did not create a distinctive enough identity or put together a viral moment. These factors may be irrelevant to governing, but they have everything to do with winning the presidential nomination.
The best analogy to Gillibrand may be Inslee, the governor of Washington who was a one-issue candidate (in his case, climate change). The lesson from both may be that a presidential candidate cannot be about just one thing or one group of voters.
What we can say is that the successful candidates so far during this cycle were either very well known (Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders); had a distinct following coming into the race (Warren among progressives); or have shown extraordinary retail and media skill in forging an emotional connection with voters (Harris). What explains why South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, someone with much lighter credentials, would have broken out? Again, he found a niche, a way voters could easily remember him — as the super-smart, gay mayor.
In a slickly put-together exit video, Gillibrand certainly emphasized her determination to elect women up and down the ticket. She told the Times she’d consider endorsing someone but hadn’t picked a favorite. One would imagine, true to her advocacy for women, that she would choose one of the three women who have qualified for the September debate. And while a candidate who never caught on might not, in normal times, be a coveted endorsement, in this case, Gillibrand’s support might help elevate one of the remaining women as the best chance for a female nominee and president.