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The Gillibrand Test Case for Women in Politics

We just need more women.

Through Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina and Michele Bachmann, that’s the argument that strategists, political scientists and pollsters focusing on female candidates make about the race for the White House.

More women means less attention on pantsuits and more on political strategy. More women means a candidate is judged on her merits, not as a human proxy for more than 50 percent of the population. More women makes it easier for every woman running.

In the 2020 presidential primary, six women mounted campaigns and the field finally had more than enough women to assemble a basketball team — or to minimize the use of sports metaphors in politics, if they so chose. But the first to drop out? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who attempted to distinguish her candidacy by offering the most outspokenly feminist message of the field.

Of course, there are many explanations for why Ms. Gillibrand’s candidacy failed to catch fire. Like the majority of the primary contenders, she struggled to overcome campaign cash woes and strategic miscalculations, and with breaking from the pack.

But her fiercely feminist message, according to those who study women in politics, offered a powerful test case of the different ways women can run for president, and of the obstacles they continue to face — even in a field crowded with female contenders.

More female candidates in a race can help voters see women as viable political leaders without making any one campaign a referendum on gender equity. A bigger field also means that an explicitly feminist case may struggle to break through, because other choices abound.

“We know that women do believe women candidates represent them better than men and the amazing thing about this cycle is how many choices there are,” said Lauren Leader, head of women’s civic group All In Together, and who has known Ms. Gillibrand for nearly a decade. “But that meant it was harder for Kirsten. She doesn’t automatically stand out as the feminist icon in this race when there are so many other women.”

While Mrs. Clinton negotiated how best to talk about gender for much of her time in public life, all of the major female candidates in 2020 have embraced, to varying degrees, putting their experience as a woman in politics at the center of their appeal to voters. When Senator Elizabeth Warren released a proposal for universal child care in February, she discussed the policy in the context of her own personal history. “I remember how hard it was to find affordable and high-quality child care when I was a working mom with two little ones,” she wrote in a Medium post.

In May, Senator Kamala Harris announced an initiative to close the gender pay gap, grabbing headlines on a signature issue of Ms. Gillibrand’s. On the campaign trail, she describes being asked about “women’s issues:” “I’d look at them and say I’m so glad you want to talk about the economy,” she said, at a campaign event in South Carolina earlier this summer. “Women’s issues are everyone’s issues and all issues are women’s issues.”

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_159211158_bbfe66e3-3cdc-4083-8542-02a60c94815b-articleLarge The Gillibrand Test Case for Women in Politics Women's Rights Women and Girls Warren, Elizabeth Presidential Election of 2020 Klobuchar, Amy Gillibrand, Kirsten E Franken, Al Emily's List discrimination Clinton, Hillary Rodham

Senator Kamala Harris announced an initiative to close the gender pay gap in May.CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

And Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota talks openly about the double-bind of being a woman in politics. “You also have to show you can do tough jobs and then people say you’re too tough. Like you can’t win, right? But you, again, have to just deal with that,” she said, in a May interview with Pod Save America.

Ms. Gillibrand distinguished herself by running on what she called a “women plus” campaign platform. She announced her candidacy with a focus on her family, saying that as a mother of young children she would fight just as hard for other people’s kids, too. Her campaign logo was Barbie pink, and her slogan — “brave wins” — a reference to a children’s book she wrote profiling famous suffragists.

In May, Ms. Gillibrand went to Atlanta for an event on abortion rights, telling a reporter that she was going “to lead the fight against these unbelievable, draconian inhumane abortion bans.” During the Democratic primary debates, she proactively brought up topics relating to issues like gender dynamics and reproductive rights, more than nearly all the other candidates, according to an analysis by the Women and Politics Institute at American University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports women in politics.

Those moments and others like them, when she leaned the most into her feminist credentials, were the times when her campaign got the most traction, say strategists and those who study women and political power.

“The question is, how do you break through in this environment?” said the Democratic operative Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List. “What Kirsten Gillibrand showed is speaking directly to women’s issues and women’s voters might get you a little breakthrough.”

Tresa Undem, a pollster who specializes in surveys on gender issues, said that discussions of fairness and power carry more political currency than they used to just a few years ago. Voters have started using terms like misogyny and patriarchy in focus groups — words Ms. Undem never heard mentioned until Donald Trump won the White House.

Even so, she notes, Ms. Gillibrand’s message was not enough to distinguish her beyond the audience of the activists, strategists and political junkies covering every twist of the primary race.

“We all see her as the woman candidate but she’s not really because they’re all talking about these issues,” Ms. Undem said. “Just take abortion; every single candidate is against the Hyde amendment.”

Some of the explanation for how her campaign unfolded clearly rests with Ms. Gillibrand, who struggled to connect with a broad enough range of voters. Her efforts in the second debate to seize the spotlight by challenging former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over his position on a child care tax credit in 1981 failed to gain as much traction as earlier attacks on his record by Ms. Harris did.

“Gillibrand really pushed the Brave Wins message which was a little bit hard to get your head around. People didn’t totally understand what that meant,” Ms. Leader said.

While the other women in the race, like Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren, overcame early attacks on their character, some suggest Ms. Gillibrand struggled to push back against charges that she is too politically calculating — a reputation that tends to be deployed more negatively toward female politicians than their male colleagues.

“She’s always been politically astute,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor who studies female candidates. “One of the criticisms that I think is in fact imbued with sexism is that she’s too ambitious and too calculating.”

On one issue, Ms. Gillibrand did stand out — to her detriment: Al Franken. Ms. Gillibrand faced persistent questions about her position on her former Senate colleague, who retired in 2017 following allegations of sexual harassment. While Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris also called for Mr. Franken to step down — a fact often mentioned by Ms. Gillibrand’s frustrated aides — Ms. Gillibrand moved first, awarding herself the credit, and the blame, for the caucus-wide call.

Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive rights activist, recounted seeing Ms. Gillibrand address a group at The Wing, an all-female social club, in June 2018, and feeling horrified when the first question asked was about her decision to push for Mr. Franken’s resignation.

“They tried to blame her for something a man did,” said Ms. Sherman, who has donated to Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris. “Even in a feminist women-centric space she’s getting asked about that.”

When Senator Elizabeth Warren released a proposal for universal child care in February, she discussed the policy in the context of her own experience.CreditDustin Chambers for The New York Times

That Mr. Franken appeared to be a factor in Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign shows how female candidates can still face serious backlash for attacking high-profile men.

“The gender power dynamics don’t change completely simply because there are more women there,” Professor Dittmar said. “Women who challenge the power of well-liked men are not rewarded for it.” Ms. Gillibrand’s run, she added, might make that easier for the female candidates of the future. “It takes the Gillibrands of the world, who are willing to take some of this flak, to make it easier for the women who come after them.”

That may be how the Gillibrand campaign views things too.

“We put the civil rights of women front and center and never backed down,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a video announcing her decision to drop out of the race. “We have moved the needle.”

She bowed out when she realized it was time, an effort to preserve her political brand for future campaigns.

“We’ve learned that in a lot of ways women running for president behave a lot like men running for president,” said Jennifer Lawless, an expert on gender and politics at the University of Virginia. “She was just as credible as some of these other guys, but this was a bad year to not be Joe Biden.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

The Gillibrand Test Case for Women in Politics

We just need more women.

Through Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina and Michele Bachmann, that’s the argument that strategists, political scientists and pollsters focusing on female candidates make about the race for the White House.

More women means less attention on pantsuits and more on political strategy. More women means a candidate is judged on her merits, not as a human proxy for more than 50 percent of the population. More women makes it easier for every woman running.

In the 2020 presidential primary, six women mounted campaigns and the field finally had more than enough women to assemble a basketball team — or to minimize the use of sports metaphors in politics, if they so chose. But the first to drop out? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who attempted to distinguish her candidacy by offering the most outspokenly feminist message of the field.

Of course, there are many explanations for why Ms. Gillibrand’s candidacy failed to catch fire. Like the majority of the primary contenders, she struggled to overcome campaign cash woes and strategic miscalculations, and with breaking from the pack.

But her fiercely feminist message, according to those who study women in politics, offered a powerful test case of the different ways women can run for president, and of the obstacles they continue to face — even in a field crowded with female contenders.

More female candidates in a race can help voters see women as viable political leaders without making any one campaign a referendum on gender equity. A bigger field also means that an explicitly feminist case may struggle to break through, because other choices abound.

“We know that women do believe women candidates represent them better than men and the amazing thing about this cycle is how many choices there are,” said Lauren Leader, head of women’s civic group All In Together, and who has known Ms. Gillibrand for nearly a decade. “But that meant it was harder for Kirsten. She doesn’t automatically stand out as the feminist icon in this race when there are so many other women.”

While Mrs. Clinton negotiated how best to talk about gender for much of her time in public life, all of the major female candidates in 2020 have embraced, to varying degrees, putting their experience as a woman in politics at the center of their appeal to voters. When Senator Elizabeth Warren released a proposal for universal child care in February, she discussed the policy in the context of her own personal history. “I remember how hard it was to find affordable and high-quality child care when I was a working mom with two little ones,” she wrote in a Medium post.

In May, Senator Kamala Harris announced an initiative to close the gender pay gap, grabbing headlines on a signature issue of Ms. Gillibrand’s. On the campaign trail, she describes being asked about “women’s issues:” “I’d look at them and say I’m so glad you want to talk about the economy,” she said, at a campaign event in South Carolina earlier this summer. “Women’s issues are everyone’s issues and all issues are women’s issues.”

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_159211158_bbfe66e3-3cdc-4083-8542-02a60c94815b-articleLarge The Gillibrand Test Case for Women in Politics Women's Rights Women and Girls Warren, Elizabeth Presidential Election of 2020 Klobuchar, Amy Gillibrand, Kirsten E Franken, Al Emily's List discrimination Clinton, Hillary Rodham

Senator Kamala Harris announced an initiative to close the gender pay gap in May.CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

And Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota talks openly about the double-bind of being a woman in politics. “You also have to show you can do tough jobs and then people say you’re too tough. Like you can’t win, right? But you, again, have to just deal with that,” she said, in a May interview with Pod Save America.

Ms. Gillibrand distinguished herself by running on what she called a “women plus” campaign platform. She announced her candidacy with a focus on her family, saying that as a mother of young children she would fight just as hard for other people’s kids, too. Her campaign logo was Barbie pink, and her slogan — “brave wins” — a reference to a children’s book she wrote profiling famous suffragists.

In May, Ms. Gillibrand went to Atlanta for an event on abortion rights, telling a reporter that she was going “to lead the fight against these unbelievable, draconian inhumane abortion bans.” During the Democratic primary debates, she proactively brought up topics relating to issues like gender dynamics and reproductive rights, more than nearly all the other candidates, according to an analysis by the Women and Politics Institute at American University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports women in politics.

Those moments and others like them, when she leaned the most into her feminist credentials, were the times when her campaign got the most traction, say strategists and those who study women and political power.

“The question is, how do you break through in this environment?” said the Democratic operative Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List. “What Kirsten Gillibrand showed is speaking directly to women’s issues and women’s voters might get you a little breakthrough.”

Tresa Undem, a pollster who specializes in surveys on gender issues, said that discussions of fairness and power carry more political currency than they used to just a few years ago. Voters have started using terms like misogyny and patriarchy in focus groups — words Ms. Undem never heard mentioned until Donald Trump won the White House.

Even so, she notes, Ms. Gillibrand’s message was not enough to distinguish her beyond the audience of the activists, strategists and political junkies covering every twist of the primary race.

“We all see her as the woman candidate but she’s not really because they’re all talking about these issues,” Ms. Undem said. “Just take abortion; every single candidate is against the Hyde amendment.”

Some of the explanation for how her campaign unfolded clearly rests with Ms. Gillibrand, who struggled to connect with a broad enough range of voters. Her efforts in the second debate to seize the spotlight by challenging former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over his position on a child care tax credit in 1981 failed to gain as much traction as earlier attacks on his record by Ms. Harris did.

“Gillibrand really pushed the Brave Wins message which was a little bit hard to get your head around. People didn’t totally understand what that meant,” Ms. Leader said.

While the other women in the race, like Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren, overcame early attacks on their character, some suggest Ms. Gillibrand struggled to push back against charges that she is too politically calculating — a reputation that tends to be deployed more negatively toward female politicians than their male colleagues.

“She’s always been politically astute,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor who studies female candidates. “One of the criticisms that I think is in fact imbued with sexism is that she’s too ambitious and too calculating.”

On one issue, Ms. Gillibrand did stand out — to her detriment: Al Franken. Ms. Gillibrand faced persistent questions about her position on her former Senate colleague, who retired in 2017 following allegations of sexual harassment. While Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris also called for Mr. Franken to step down — a fact often mentioned by Ms. Gillibrand’s frustrated aides — Ms. Gillibrand moved first, awarding herself the credit, and the blame, for the caucus-wide call.

Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive rights activist, recounted seeing Ms. Gillibrand address a group at The Wing, an all-female social club, in June 2018, and feeling horrified when the first question asked was about her decision to push for Mr. Franken’s resignation.

“They tried to blame her for something a man did,” said Ms. Sherman, who has donated to Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris. “Even in a feminist women-centric space she’s getting asked about that.”

When Senator Elizabeth Warren released a proposal for universal child care in February, she discussed the policy in the context of her own experience.CreditDustin Chambers for The New York Times

That Mr. Franken appeared to be a factor in Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign shows how female candidates can still face serious backlash for attacking high-profile men.

“The gender power dynamics don’t change completely simply because there are more women there,” Professor Dittmar said. “Women who challenge the power of well-liked men are not rewarded for it.” Ms. Gillibrand’s run, she added, might make that easier for the female candidates of the future. “It takes the Gillibrands of the world, who are willing to take some of this flak, to make it easier for the women who come after them.”

That may be how the Gillibrand campaign views things too.

“We put the civil rights of women front and center and never backed down,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a video announcing her decision to drop out of the race. “We have moved the needle.”

She bowed out when she realized it was time, an effort to preserve her political brand for future campaigns.

“We’ve learned that in a lot of ways women running for president behave a lot like men running for president,” said Jennifer Lawless, an expert on gender and politics at the University of Virginia. “She was just as credible as some of these other guys, but this was a bad year to not be Joe Biden.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Was a Six-Woman Field Too Big for a Feminist Message?

We just need more women.

Through Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Carly Fiorina and Michele Bachmann, that’s the argument that strategists, political scientists and pollsters focusing on female candidates make about the race for the White House.

More women means less attention on pantsuits and more on political strategy. More women means a candidate is judged on her merits, not as a human proxy for more than 50 percent of the population. More women makes it easier for every woman running.

In the 2020 presidential primary, six women mounted campaigns and the field finally had more than enough women to assemble a basketball team — or to minimize the use of sports metaphors in politics, if they so chose. But the first to drop out? Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who attempted to distinguish her candidacy by offering the most outspokenly feminist message of the field.

Of course, there are many explanations for why Ms. Gillibrand’s candidacy failed to catch fire. Like the majority of the primary contenders, she struggled to overcome campaign cash woes and strategic miscalculations, and with breaking from the pack.

But her fiercely feminist message, according to those who study women in politics, offered a powerful test case of the different ways women can run for president, and of the obstacles they continue to face — even in a field crowded with female contenders.

More female candidates in a race can help voters see women as viable political leaders without making any one campaign a referendum on gender equity. A bigger field also means that an explicitly feminist case may struggle to break through, because other choices abound.

“We know that women do believe women candidates represent them better than men and the amazing thing about this cycle is how many choices there are,” said Lauren Leader, head of women’s civic group All In Together, and who has known Ms. Gillibrand for nearly a decade. “But that meant it was harder for Kirsten. She doesn’t automatically stand out as the feminist icon in this race when there are so many other women.”

While Mrs. Clinton negotiated how best to talk about gender for much of her time in public life, all of the major female candidates in 2020 have embraced, to varying degrees, putting their experience as a woman in politics at the center of their appeal to voters. When Senator Elizabeth Warren released a proposal for universal child care in February, she discussed the policy in the context of her own personal history. “I remember how hard it was to find affordable and high-quality child care when I was a working mom with two little ones,” she wrote in a Medium post.

In May, Senator Kamala Harris announced an initiative to close the gender pay gap, grabbing headlines on a signature issue of Ms. Gillibrand’s. On the campaign trail, she describes being asked about “women’s issues:” “I’d look at them and say I’m so glad you want to talk about the economy,” she said, at a campaign event in South Carolina earlier this summer. “Women’s issues are everyone’s issues and all issues are women’s issues.”

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_159211158_bbfe66e3-3cdc-4083-8542-02a60c94815b-articleLarge Was a Six-Woman Field Too Big for a Feminist Message? Women's Rights Women and Girls Warren, Elizabeth Presidential Election of 2020 Klobuchar, Amy Gillibrand, Kirsten E Franken, Al Emily's List discrimination Clinton, Hillary Rodham

Senator Kamala Harris announced an initiative to close the gender pay gap in May.CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

And Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota talks openly about the double-bind of being a woman in politics. “You also have to show you can do tough jobs and then people say you’re too tough. Like you can’t win, right? But you, again, have to just deal with that,” she said, in a May interview with Pod Save America.

Ms. Gillibrand distinguished herself by running on what she called a “women plus” campaign platform. She announced her candidacy with a focus on her family, saying that as a mother of young children she would fight just as hard for other people’s kids, too. Her campaign logo was Barbie pink, and her slogan — “brave wins” — a reference to a children’s book she wrote profiling famous suffragists.

In May, Ms. Gillibrand went to Atlanta for an event on abortion rights, telling a reporter that she was going “to lead the fight against these unbelievable, draconian inhumane abortion bans.” During the Democratic primary debates, she proactively brought up topics relating to issues like gender dynamics and reproductive rights, more than nearly all the other candidates, according to an analysis by the Women and Politics Institute at American University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports women in politics.

Those moments and others like them, when she leaned the most into her feminist credentials, were the times when her campaign got the most traction, say strategists and those who study women and political power.

“The question is, how do you break through in this environment?” said the Democratic operative Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at Emily’s List. “What Kirsten Gillibrand showed is speaking directly to women’s issues and women’s voters might get you a little breakthrough.”

Tresa Undem, a pollster who specializes in surveys on gender issues, said that discussions of fairness and power carry more political currency than they used to just a few years ago. Voters have started using terms like misogyny and patriarchy in focus groups — words Ms. Undem never heard mentioned until Donald Trump won the White House.

Even so, she notes, Ms. Gillibrand’s message was not enough to distinguish her beyond the audience of the activists, strategists and political junkies covering every twist of the primary race.

“We all see her as the woman candidate but she’s not really because they’re all talking about these issues,” Ms. Undem said. “Just take abortion; every single candidate is against the Hyde amendment.”

Some of the explanation for how her campaign unfolded clearly rests with Ms. Gillibrand, who struggled to connect with a broad enough range of voters. Her efforts in the second debate to seize the spotlight by challenging former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. over his position on a child care tax credit in 1981 failed to gain as much traction as earlier attacks on his record by Ms. Harris did.

“Gillibrand really pushed the Brave Wins message which was a little bit hard to get your head around. People didn’t totally understand what that meant,” Ms. Leader said.

While the other women in the race, like Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Warren, overcame early attacks on their character, some suggest Ms. Gillibrand struggled to push back against charges that she is too politically calculating — a reputation that tends to be deployed more negatively toward female politicians than their male colleagues.

“She’s always been political astute,” said Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers University professor who studies female candidates. “One of the criticisms that I think is in fact imbued with sexism is that she’s too ambitious and too calculating.”

On one issue, Ms. Gillibrand did stand out — to her detriment: Al Franken. Ms. Gillibrand faced persistent questions about her position on her former Senate colleague, who retired in 2017 following allegations of sexual harassment. While Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris also called for Mr. Franken to step down — a fact often mentioned by Ms. Gillibrand’s frustrated aides — Ms. Gillibrand moved first, awarding herself the credit, and the blame, for the caucus-wide call.

Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive rights activist, recounted seeing Ms. Gillibrand address a group at The Wing, an all-female social club, in June 2018, and feeling horrified when the first question asked was about her decision to push for Mr. Franken’s resignation.

“They tried to blame her for something a man did,” said Ms. Sherman, who has donated to Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Warren and Ms. Harris. “Even in a feminist women-centric space she’s getting asked about that.”

When Senator Elizabeth Warren released a proposal for universal child care in February, she discussed the policy in the context of her own experience.CreditDustin Chambers for The New York Times

That Mr. Franken appeared to be a factor in Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign shows how female candidates can still face serious backlash for attacking high-profile men.

“The gender power dynamics don’t change completely simply because there are more women there,” Professor Dittmar said. “Women who challenge the power of well-liked men are not rewarded for it.” Ms. Gillibrand’s run, she added, might make that easier for the female candidates of the future. “It takes the Gillibrands of the world, who are willing to take some of this flak, to make it easier for the women who come after them.”

That may be how the Gillibrand campaign views things too.

“We put the civil rights of women front and center and never backed down,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a video announcing her decision to drop out of the race. “We have moved the needle.”

She bowed out when she realized it was time, an effort to preserve her political brand for future campaigns.

“We’ve learned that in a lot of ways women running for president behave a lot like men running for president,” said Jennifer Lawless, an expert on gender and politics at the University of Virginia. “She was just as credible as some of these other guys, but this was a bad year to not be Joe Biden.”

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

How Kirsten Gillibrand’s Presidential Dreams Unraveled

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was in a bind.

With less than three weeks until the deadline to get into the fall presidential debates — which she deemed crucial to keeping her campaign alive — she was on track to fall well short. She had neither the 130,000 donors she needed nor the necessary support in the polls. What she did have was a stockpile of cash. So, in one Hail Mary heave, she unloaded $1.5 million on a two-week television buy in the doldrums of August to try to improve her numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“The alternative to not going all in,” said Glen Caplin, a senior adviser to Ms. Gillibrand, “was not a viable alternative.”

The gamble would prove to be a final miscalculation. If the commercials caused any discernible Gillibrand bump, it would go undetected: No Iowa or New Hampshire polls that could have qualified her were even conducted after her ads aired. On Wednesday, with the deadline just hours away, Ms. Gillibrand dropped out.

“It’s important to know when it’s not your time,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a video.

How Ms. Gillibrand, 52, so swiftly went from a rising star of the Democratic resistance and “the #MeToo senator,” as “60 Minutes” had memorably tagged her in 2018, to a 2020 afterthought and early primary casualty is a tale of mistakes, misfortune and a message that did not meaningfully hold sway in a historically crowded field.

Ms. Gillibrand, of New York, entered the race pitching herself as the voice of feminism and the defender of families and women’s equality. She championed a new “Family Bill of Rights,” pioneered a new litmus test to select only judges who supported Roe v. Wade and traveled to Republican-controlled states to protest new restrictions on abortion.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_153740571_d3050ed5-2aac-410c-8edf-9d925a0c424a-articleLarge How Kirsten Gillibrand’s Presidential Dreams Unraveled Women and Girls United States Politics and Government Presidential Election of 2020 Political Advertising New York State Gillibrand, Kirsten E Franken, Al Democratic Party Debates (Political)

Of the six female candidates, Ms. Gillibrand was the first to call it quits, having found little traction among women or men.CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

But of the six female candidates, she was the first to call it quits, having found little traction among women or men. She almost never topped 1 percent in a poll. In fact, Ms. Gillibrand ended up as the female candidate with the fewest donors, trailing even the political newcomer Marianne Williamson, despite having spent years trying to build a national following.

[Who’s in? Who’s out? Keep up with the 2020 field with our candidate tracker.]

“She was running in a lane of fighting on women’s issues, but other people were running in that lane as well,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said. “You had several female candidates who were all bringing their own brand of feminism.”

Ms. Gillibrand said in an interview that she was unsure what the missing piece of her candidacy was. “I don’t know,” she said. “My campaign may well have been ahead of its time.”

Little seemed to click this year.

Her kickoff event was overshadowed by the release of the first snippets of the Mueller report, an unforeseeable development.

Yet she was also prone to self-inflicted wounds. At one Boston fund-raiser, Ms. Gillibrand asked a group of women to contact people on their Christmas-card and school-parent lists to ask for $1 donations to help her make the debate, according to one attendee, who said she and others were appalled by the implication that the women did not have professional circles of their own.

By early August, the downward trajectory was plain to see. Senator Kamala Harris of California was motoring across Iowa in a leather-appointed bus decorated with her campaign logo. A second bus of reporters and aides trailed behind.

Ms. Gillibrand rode in a small R.V. with her campaign sign slapped on the side; her husband was behind the wheel.

She attracted scant crowds (Andrew Yang, a first-time candidate, outdrew her splashy weekend kickoff rally on a rainy work night this spring; both events were in Manhattan). She failed to secure significant endorsements (only one New York member of Congress backed her).

And she was plagued by questions about her past. Her prominent role as the first Democratic senator to call for Al Franken’s resignation dogged her throughout the race, with voters and reporters bringing it up and some Democratic donors denouncing her. And Ms. Gillibrand’s record included policy reversals like her past support of gun rights and her opposition to “amnesty for illegal immigrants” — making her a hard sell for progressives focused on purity and consistency.

Her exact ideological bearing could prove elusive. Was she the upstate congresswoman who flipped a heavily Republican seat more than a decade ago, or the liberal firebrand who voted down nearly every one of President Trump’s nominees?

Ms. Gillibrand in a mock debate session in Troy, N.Y., in June.CreditPatrick Dodson for The New York Times

“There’s a false debate in the party right now,” Ms. Gillibrand said in late August. “Either you have to be an uber-progressive who can inspire the base, or you have to be a moderate who wins those red and purple areas. I believe you have to do both. And my candidacy is both.”

As Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign languished, she began plunging ever more money into Facebook ads, prospecting for donors with money-losing offers like giving away T-shirts for $1.

[Sign up for our politics newsletter and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]

Overall, she spent $2.8 million on Facebook — more than $20 for every contributor to her campaign. She ended with fewer than the required 130,000 donors and less than $800,000 in campaign funds.

“The sky-high expectations for her candidacy were also themselves a liability,” Jon Reinish, a former aide to Ms. Gillibrand, said. “When she didn’t shoot to the top right away, the perception game became an albatross she couldn’t shake.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s candidacy did not get off to an auspicious start. She had secured a big booking on her first full day, a spot on Rachel Maddow’s highly rated MSNBC show. The show is typically a friendly space for Democrats, but Ms. Maddow grilled Ms. Gillibrand about her political “transformation.” “She had an A rating from the N.R.A.,” Ms. Maddow said. “She said she wanted to make English the official language of the United States.”

It was the first of many interviews consumed by questions about her record.

More coverage of Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign
Gillibrand Drops Out of 2020 Democratic Presidential Race

Aug. 28, 2019

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She became so adroit at apologizing for her past positions — to her disadvantage, guns and immigration developed into two prominent issues in the Democratic primary contest — that she tried to turn that skill into an asset, comparing it favorably to Mr. Trump’s lack of contrition. But she yielded no ground on Mr. Franken, saying he was not entitled to her “silence” after multiple, credible accusations of sexual misconduct.

“She really did carve a path for unapologetic feminism,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion-rights group NARAL, said. But, she added, “those who are fiercest and who choose to go toe-to-toe with entrenched misogyny are rarely rewarded.”

Ms. Hogue said that the Franken episode had at times “overshadowed her campaign,” but she predicted that “history will show what she was doing was for the betterment of the country.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign made an early bet that the senator could slowly win over small audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms. Her $10 million Senate war chest gave her a financial cushion to pursue the strategy. But the early months of the 2020 race showed the national narrative playing out on social media and television, not in coffee shops. That dynamic drove the early states, not the other way around.

Ms. Gillibrand announced her presidential campaign in March.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

“I didn’t see her show up like I know she could have and know that she can,” L. Joy Williams, the president of the Brooklyn N.A.A.C.P., said. “I don’t know why, to be honest with you.”

Her campaign also failed to line up key supporters in New York, such as party officials and members of Congress. One planned dinner for lawmakers at her Washington home was canceled. Some New York donors said they wrote her a check out of obligation but declined to host a fund-raiser. Charlie King, a Democratic National Committee member from New York who is unaligned in the 2020 race, said he never heard from Ms. Gillibrand or her team.

“I heard from several other campaigns,” Mr. King said. “Multiple times.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s lack of small-donor support — the lifeblood of Democratic fund-raising — was evident from the start. Through June, she had topped 2,500 donations in a day only once; Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had more than 100 such days.

In May, Ms. Gillibrand’s campaign began to sever ties with Anne Lewis Strategies, the political firm where she had directed $5.6 million in 2017 and 2018, in part to build a digital supporter list. Not enough of those people became 2020 donors.

Months into her bid, Ms. Gillibrand was hemorrhaging money. In the second quarter she spent nearly $2 million more than she raised — by far the worst ratio of any candidate who was not self-funding a run.

Rival campaigns took note. Some began privately discussing how soon would be too soon to try to poach some of the talent that Ms. Gillibrand had assembled in her Troy, N.Y., headquarters.

Ms. Gillibrand had some bright spots. She sipped whiskey with voters, dressed up with drag queens in Des Moines, took spin classes everywhere and arm-wrestled with an Iowa college student. Her team quickly packaged these vignettes into videos posted online.

During her Fox News forum in early June, she was dismissed by the moderator, Chris Wallace, as “not very polite” — a rare viral moment.

“We want women to have a seat at the table,” Ms. Gillibrand said.

“What about men?” Mr. Wallace asked.

“They’re already there — do you not know?” she replied.

In July, her answer defining white privilege ricocheted across the internet and drew plaudits from progressives. But by then the press corps trailing her had thinned. Voters seemed to have settled on a top tier of contenders. It did not include her.

Ms. Gillibrand and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. during the second Democratic presidential debate. CreditMaddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Ms. Gillibrand and her campaign knew the second debate was her last best shot to break through. And they thought they had found a perfect issue to take on the front-runner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.: his opposition to a child tax credit in 1980.

But Ms. Gillibrand telegraphed the attack days before the debate. So Mr. Biden came prepared for her premeditated broadside, dismissing her questions about his record on defending women as expediency borne of the fact that she was now running against him.

Ms. Gillibrand received her first 2 percent qualifying poll soon afterward, which helped inspire the ill-fated ad blitz. Her advisers hoped better polling would inspire more donors to chip in.

In recent weeks, her campaign filled inboxes with pleas for cash as often as three times a day. Gloria Steinem signed emails. T-shirts were offered for $1.

“At this point, it’s now or never,” her campaign pleaded on Monday.

It would be her last day on the trail. She took a spin class near San Francisco, canceled fund-raisers in Southern California and then flew to New York to huddle with her family on Tuesday evening.

“I came home, talked to my husband, my two boys, we had a very, very thoughtful and wonderful conversation about what the role of public service is,” she said, “and that mommy is dedicated to serving others, no matter what or in whatever role it is.”

On Wednesday, she broke the news to her headquarters staff in person. They ended the night together at a bar, drinking whiskey.

Alex Burns contributed reporting

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