WARNER, N.H. — Kirsten Gillibrand had been answering questions in the overflowing basement of a small-town bookstore for 45 minutes or so when a staffer told her it was time to go. She thanked her audience for coming. Then she made a plea.
“I need 65,000 individual donors to reach the debate stage,” the Democratic presidential candidate and New York senator said, asking anyone who liked what they heard to donate even a dollar or two.
“I don’t have to be your first choice, or even your second choice,” she said. “But I need your support.”
Many of those listening cocked their heads in surprise. One woman, who had been nodding along with many of Gillibrand’s answers and shooting looks of approval at her husband, whispered to her neighbor: “She doesn’t have enough? Really?”
Gillibrand, the Senate successor to Hillary Clinton, the outspoken firebrand from one of the most populous and most Democratic states in the country, is still racing to reach a threshold that a dozen others — including little-known entrepreneur Andrew Yang and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson — already claim to have reached.
Her difficulty testifies to the complications faced by many candidates in the sprawling and multifaceted field numbering nearly two dozen. It also demonstrates the limitations of a perceived niche candidate, even one representing a high-profile social movement that helped fuel voter turnout less than a year ago. Gillibrand, the 52-year-old married mother of two sons, gained national notice as an early ally of the #MeToo movement fighting sexual harassment. But as she has tried to expand that thrust into a line of policy positions, she’s found the arena crowded.
Four senators running for president — Kamala D. Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Gillibrand — all cite their success in winning statewide elections as proof that a woman can reach heights no woman has before. All rail against sexism and gender pay gaps. All press for a woman’s right to choose.
The issues on which Gillibrand hoped to build her campaign — reproductive rights, paid family leave and gender pay equality — are no longer distinguishing ones. Now, they are mainstream, invoked by female and male candidates alike.
“I think it is really different for someone to say ‘We need to do something about the fact that most moms don’t have child care,’ and hearing Elizabeth Warren talking about her experience feeling like she was going to have to choose between her future and her children,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who heralded the amplifying effect of so many prominent women talking about those issues.
A recent example came after Alabama passed a near-ban on abortions. Gillibrand went to Atlanta to speak to women’s leaders about the topic, protested outside the Supreme Court, and released a “family bill of rights” that incorporated her abortion rights and family leave plans. But she was hardly the only candidate to emerge as an advocate: Harris called for lawmakers to “check their hypocrisy.” Warren vowed that “we will fight this.” Klobuchar called it “unconstitutional.”
As one New York-based strategist put it — although on the condition of anonymity to protect political relationships — “It’s one thing to emphasize the woman part when you’re running against all men. It’s another thing when you’re running against a lot of very qualified women who are also moms and more.”
Gillibrand’s path to the Democratic nomination always seemed likely to include potholes. She was criticized for being inauthentic after rapidly reversing positions when she was appointed to the Senate in 2009 to replace Hillary Clinton, who became secretary of State; Gillibrand had previously served as a House member representing a conservative district. After adopting more liberal positions on issues such as gun control and immigration, and winning statewide races in 2012 and 2018, Gillibrand has since said she is “ashamed” of her old stances.
Her #MeToo legacy is also complicated; Gillibrand’s former deputy chief of staff resigned in the aftermath of the senator’s handling of a sexual harassment accusation in her own office.
Fellow Democrats criticized Gillibrand when, putting the #MeToo movement ahead of party loyalty, she became the first senator to call for the resignation of Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota after multiple women complained he had touched them inappropriately. Harris called for Franken’s resignation shortly after Gillibrand, but only Gillibrand appears to be facing blowback from Democratic donors.
“The question is, is that #MeToo message believable? We don’t know until the people vote,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based political consultant. “But it’s not working now. Why? Because there’s too many things going on in the environment.”
Indeed, during a recent trip to New Hampshire, voters did not question or dismiss Gillibrand’s record. Instead, they knew nothing about it. When asked what they knew about the senator, the first 15 voters questioned on her six-stop trip said some variation of “nothing” or “very little.”
“I don’t know anything about her,” said Jackie Wood, chairman of the Auburn County Democrats, who caught Gillibrand at a Derry coffee shop.
“I know her by name only, and just kind of in the background of the massive list,” said Lori Kyer, who works with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and is volunteer supervisor at Manchester’s Planned Parenthood Health Center.
Gillibrand raised $3 million in the first quarter of the year, less than many other candidates. But her campaign account includes far more because she transferred $9.6 million from her existing Senate fund. Money is not limiting her campaign nearly as much as invisibility.
In a May Washington Post-ABC News poll, less than 1 percent of Democratic voters volunteered Gillibrand’s name when asked who they currently support in the presidential contest. Her solution is simple, Gillibrand said: “Building up my own name recognition.”
“It is very early, and I think there’s an enormous advantage if you have 100 percent name recognition,” she said, alluding to fellow candidate and former vice president Joe Biden. “There is an advantage if you have more coverage.”
Her team is putting Gillibrand in meet-and-greet settings, confident in her ability to win voters over with wit, energy and a strong handle on policy positions. In her six New Hampshire stops, that strategy yielded dividends. While many voters said before her events that they did not know much about Gillibrand, they said afterward that they were impressed with her — in particular her command of a wide variety of issues and her passionate defense of families and reproductive rights.
“I clearly didn’t know enough,” said Randy Hanson, who teaches history at Colby-Sawyer College and asked Gillibrand’s staff if she could schedule an appearance there. He said he was inspired to donate to her campaign.
Gillibrand’s early campaign mixes earnest appearances like those with more attention-grabbing ventures.
Expanding beyond her gender proposals, she rolled out a plan that would give students two free years of state college for every one year of public service, including work in the medical, education and renewable energy fields. She also advocates giving voters $200 in “Democracy Dollars,” federally funded vouchers they could donate to a candidate of their choice. (The candidates receiving them would have to agree to cap all donations at $200 per person.)
She adopted a campaign slogan of “Brave Wins,” which she uses to cast herself as a foil to President Trump. Gillibrand regularly calls Trump a coward — a juxtaposition she attempted to cement by holding her official announcement rally outside a Trump-branded hotel in New York City.
Lately, Gillibrand has also embraced more lighthearted moments. She arm-wrestled a voter in Iowa, played beer pong in a Nashua bar and traded dresses with drag queens at a gay bar in Des Moines. In New York, she downed a couple of whiskeys during a sit-down conversation with drag queen Marti Gould Cummings, who quizzed her on policy, her efforts on behalf of the LGBTQ community, and whether she prefers Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. (“That’s impossible,” Gillibrand said.)
Gillibrand is also the only member of the 23-person field whose stump speech includes the word “jiggle,” which she uses to describe the arms of women who helped her politically active grandmother stuff envelopes with campaign mailings back in the day. Gillibrand’s grandmother was one of the first prominent women in Albany-area politics.
“I wanted to be just like them,” Gillibrand says at almost every stop, before wiggling her arm back and forth. “And sure enough. . .”
That story is part of Gillibrand’s explanation of her motivations — in particular, her drive for women’s rights.
“I didn’t know her backstory at all in terms of some of the role models she’s had in her life,” said Emmy Wyatt, a Bedford resident who saw Gillibrand in Derry. “I do find that powerful, because then that tells me that it’s a value that was put in her as a child, let’s say — service and leadership.”
Campaign aides say they are fairly certain that Gillibrand will ultimately meet the Democratic National Committee’s criteria for the debate stage in June. Beyond that, the candidate remains upbeat. In New Hampshire, a young woman wearing a feminist T-shirt asked Gillibrand how she plans to ascend.
“Beyond my record, beyond my experience, beyond my electability? Hmmm, I don’t know,” Gillibrand said with a wry smile. “I’ll try to break through.”