Kirsten Gillibrand Isn’t Afraid of Anything

Kirsten Gillibrand Isn’t Afraid of Anything

Kirsten Gillibrand Isn’t Afraid of Anything

The New York senator is a Medicare for All, Green New Deal progressive who wants to win over Trump’s voters. Can she convince Democrats to give her a shot?


I’m not afraid of anything!” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tells a crowd in Davenport, Iowa, as she stands on a rickety chair in a packed bar. It’s one of six events she will do over the course of 30 hours here in the first caucus state. The 5-foot-2 New York senator, who’s made “bravery”—her own, her voters’—the centerpiece of her presidential campaign, hops off the chair from time to time and wanders the crowd with her microphone, Oprah-style, then jumps back on it to answer the questions she gets, tall enough for everyone to see. Her staff seems both elated at the way she is working the room, and a tiny bit worried about her safety on that unreliable chair. But Gillibrand can’t be stopped. Here, as elsewhere, she poses for pictures with people until the last voter is selfied.

In Davenport, as in every place I see her, the New York senator talks rat-tat-a-tat fast, knowing she’s got at least 15 competitors for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and that time—with voters and the media—is running short. Sure, the Iowa caucuses were still 11 months away, but Gillibrand is averaging about 1 percent in most polls. Soon, reporters will skip covering candidates with numbers that low. So Gillibrand opens her stump speech wasting no time: “I want to tell you who I am, why I’m running, and why I can beat Donald Trump.” She has her family story, along with lots of facts and figures and policy points, but her pitch comes down to two key items: She’s a Medicare for All progressive who nonetheless knows how to win in red districts, and perhaps more important in this Democratic primary campaign, she is a Resistance mom, as are most of the women who make up her crowds. Crushed by the 2016 election results—in interviews, Gillibrand admits that she cried for a long time after Hillary Clinton’s loss, then emerged, renewed, by the 2017 Women’s March—she and other women have risen up together, and they’re going after the president, he who is not brave, and whom Gillibrand will famously call a “coward” in her campaign-kickoff speech.

The morning after her packed event in Davenport, I follow Gillibrand south to Muscatine—she is on a Mississippi River tour, visiting some of the Iowa counties that flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016—and she seeks me out to make sure I’ll be at her official campaign kickoff that coming Sunday, outside of the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York. “We’re gonna punch Trump in the face!” she tells me, smiling broadly, literally jumping up and down. “It’s the New York way!” Then she hops in her car to race to her next event.

For a week, I watched Gillibrand juggle these approaches: Iowa nice and New York nasty, the smart mom and senator with an ambitious plan for a “common-good fund” to provide for family leave, health care for all, and retirement security, but who also hits at Trump hard any chance she gets. Gillibrand rejects the notion that you can’t promote policy and battle Trump at the same time. Just watch me, she says, every day.

In her first congressional race, Gillibrand won a district with a nearly two-to-one Republican registration, and in her most recent Senate race (in which she had only nominal GOP opposition), she flipped at least 17 counties that went for Trump, including 10 rural counties much like those in Iowa she’s now visiting. She pitches herself as a Democrat who is willing to brave Fox News and is also unabashedly progressive. Although Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, another Democratic contender, can boast of winning a comparable patchwork of swing districts in her state last year, Klobuchar is running as something of a moderate, casting a more skeptical eye on Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, two issues that are quickly becoming litmus tests for the 2020 Democratic candidates. Gillibrand has stepped out on both issues, having supported a version of Medicare for All back when she first ran for Congress in 2006. Now, she embraces a more ambitious transition to a single-payer system. She touts the Green New Deal at every stop, even when she’s not asked about it. Climate change is top of mind for many Iowans, as the worst floods in recent history covered much of western Iowa in March; even in the east, rivers were surreally swollen, making my drive between Des Moines, Dubuque, and Davenport reminiscent of a tour along the Louisiana Bayou.

And while the New York senator touts herself, accurately, as the person who’s voted the most consistently against Trump’s nominees—Cabinet secretaries as well as judges—she also boasts that the president signed 18 of her bills last session, on rural broadband, for example, and help for small businesses. She rages against opioid makers, gun manufacturers, and greedy banks (she voted against the bailouts in 2008) , but she steadfastly defends “healthy capitalism” against “corrupt capitalism.”

In short, Gillibrand pitches herself as someone who’s uniquely qualified—brave enough, she would say—to take the fight to Trump, yet also fight for his voters. Will the Democratic primary base thrill to her combination of progressivism and results-oriented pragmatism? Or will it reject this hybrid approach for a purer denunciation of Trumpism, Fox, and capitalism, too?

The big news in Iowa on the week of Gillibrand’s visit was Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who’d declared his candidacy and barnstormed the state, jumping on café counters and monopolizing television cameras. It set some women to grumbling. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan called it “potentially dangerous” and “a self-fulfilling prophesy” that the three “B-boys” of the race—Beto, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former vice president Joe Biden (as well as a more recent addition: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg)—were so far eclipsing the four talented female senators in the race: Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. At least for a while in mid-March, the four women were talking serious policy and working their tails off—while getting a fraction of the media coverage going to the male candidates.

But if O’Rourke drew bigger crowds than Gillibrand in a couple of places in Iowa, he also served as an excellent foil for her. Several voters I met called him “inspiring” but vague. Terri Billingsley Tobias, a biologist married to a farmer, had just seen the Texas political heartthrob in nearby Keokuk. “Beto was exciting, but he gave hardly any specifics,” she told me as we waited to see Gillibrand in Burlington.

“I have a record of doing the brave thing when it’s hard, when it’s not convenient, when it’s things others won’t do. That’s what makes me different,” Gillibrand told the Burlington crowd. That list included lobbying the late Fox News president Roger Ailes (“I’m not afraid of anybody!” Gillibrand reiterated) to support her bill funding aid for New York City’s 9/11 first responders; voting against bank bailouts; and clashing with the Pentagon on its “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay and lesbian service members as well as the epidemic of military sexual assault. As always, Gillibrand described her long-standing support for Medicare for All and pitched her own plan for such a program, which would let people buy in at any age. “I think all Americans should have access to Medicare,” she said. “And I think if we all buy in when we can, we’ll get to universal health care that is quality, that is affordable, and is a resilient system.” She closes, again, with “I’m not afraid of anything—I stand up to bullies,” and adds, “I will run through fire for you!”

I turn to Tobias, who’d found O’Rourke “exciting” but unimpressive in terms of policy, to ask what she thought. “Gillibrand was so much more specific!” she declares. “She has her ideas very well defined.”

It turns out that Tobias and the four female friends who came with her are not Iowans, but gate-crashers from rural Augusta, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River. Voters there don’t get the same attention as those in the election’s first caucus state, so they cross the river to see every candidate they can.

Coming into the Burlington event, Tobias adds, her top three candidates were “Kamala, Amy K., and Gillibrand—in that order. Now I’d say [Gillibrand] jumped ahead. If it was tomorrow, I’d probably vote for her. But we’ll see.”

Yet Gillibrand’s specificity on policy can cut against her, too. She got a tough question in Burlington, and again that night in Des Moines, about a bill she’s sponsoring with Republican Senator Cory Gardner that would restrict doctors and dentists to prescribing only seven days of opioid medication for “acute pain” after surgery, injuries, or dental procedures. When Gillibrand touted it on Twitter during her Iowa tour, the pushback was swift: In Twitter lingo, she was “ratioed,” meaning she got many more comments (almost all negative) than likes or retweets. In Burlington, a woman complained that Gillibrand was ignoring the “root causes” of addiction, while in Des Moines, chronic-pain sufferer Charlotte Sucik confronted her sharply: “I have to rely on medication, and I’m really miffed at one of your solutions to the opioid crisis. Why are you getting between a doctor and patient?”

Gillibrand was firm. “This bill does not deal at all with chronic pain,” she replied, only cases of acute pain where, she says, too many medical professionals overprescribe. At the end of the town hall, Sucik wasn’t convinced. “Her answer was solid—I’m open to learning more.” But, she added, “I’m still concerned about any legislation that limits a doctor’s decision on this.” A passionate Clinton supporter in 2008 and ‘16, Sucik says she’s staying uncommitted for a while this time around.

Kirsten’s never been afraid of working hard,” says Emily’s List communications vice president Christina Reynolds, who worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 elections. “She was running for a really tough red seat that wasn’t on anybody’s radar, but she put it there.” Gillibrand frequently credits her mother, lawyer Polly Rutnik, with being the only person who believed she could win that first congressional race in 2006, in a red district “where cows outnumbered Democrats.”

But it’s her mother’s mother, Polly Noonan, who provides Gillibrand with her political origin story. Noonan was nominally just a secretary to top Democrats in the state senate in Albany—though former governor Mario Cuomo said flatly, “Polly was the leader”—and Gillibrand talks about her everywhere. “My grandmother was not your typical grandma—she had a salty tongue, she was not afraid of anything, and she worked every day of her life. She never went to college. And as a secretary in our state legislature, she looked around and determined that all of the legislators were men, and all of the support staff were women, and she decided to get involved in politics. She asked all the women in the legislature to participate; she asked all her lady friends to participate; she taught all of them how to go door to door, how to stuff envelopes, how to phone-bank, how to do all the things we do to elect candidates today.” Noonan served as president of the powerful Albany Democratic Women’s Club and became vice chair of the Democratic State Committee under Cuomo.

Proudly hailing from three generations of feminists is central to Gillibrand’s presidential pitch, though she downplays the way that Noonan’s role in Albany’s political machine would benefit her granddaughter later. A lawyer who briefly worked for the tobacco giant Philip Morris, Gillibrand felt called to politics in her 30s and began raising money for Democrats. She took a job as special counsel to Andrew Cuomo when he was secretary of housing and urban development, and their history would both help and hurt her over the years. Even progressives who otherwise like her say that Gillibrand has been reluctant to buck the polarizing New York governor. Cynthia Nixon supporters hoped she would at least pause before endorsing Cuomo in last year’s gubernatorial primary; she did not. And while Gillibrand accepted the Working Families Party’s nomination when some progressives, such as new state Attorney General Letitia James, snubbed it because of Cuomo’s enmity toward the group, she has stayed on the sidelines as Cuomo dedicated himself to destroying the party over its challenges to him. Some progressives also question her fund-raising ties to corporate power: While Gillibrand whacks opioid makers and has even suggested prosecuting them, Pfizer executive Sally Susman has hosted a fund-raiser for her.

It’s also worth noting that she wasn’t always so progressive; Gillibrand was once conservative on both immigration reform and gun control, reflecting the opinions of her upstate New York constituents. She evolved on both issues very quickly after being appointed to her Senate seat in 2009. “I was maybe a little bit tough with her,” New York Representative Nydia Velázquez told the writer Rebecca Traister for New York magazine in 2017, recalling Gillibrand’s request for her help in becoming a leader on comprehensive immigration reform. “She proved me so wrong.” Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action notes that Gillibrand has become a strong leader on gun issues, as evidenced by “her votes, her not taking money from the gun lobby, her long track record.” In a field with several genuine progressives, MoveOn’s Karine Jean-Pierre praises Gillibrand for “raising really important issues in this race, like paid family leave, equal pay, and the urgent need to act on climate,” while noting that the group will stay neutral until MoveOn’s full membership votes.

When Gillibrand describes her change of heart on immigration and guns, it’s often through the prism of being a mother. She credits meeting parents who lost children to gun violence for her change of heart. “You are literally meeting parents who’d lost their daughter, and I’m a young mother with babies and tons of hormones,” she told Traister. “I was so upset that I hadn’t heard their story.”

Now, she weaves her own status as a mother into almost every issue. When she shares stories of her congressional races in that legendary upstate district, she notes that she was out campaigning, first with her son Theo, a toddler, then later while pregnant with her son Henry “out to here” (she thrusts her arm across the room). Her opponents tried to go negative on her, but they soon learned that “you can’t beat a young mother with a toddler using negative ads.”

A passionate foe of Trump’s family-separation policies, Gillibrand tears up almost every time she describes meeting boys her sons’ age—Theo is now 15, Henry 10—detained at the border. One site “looked like a prison; the boys got two hours of ‘outside time.’ A place where brothers can’t hug one another.” Discussing climate change and the Green New Deal, she gets choked up recalling a mother who had her toddlers swept from her arms during New York’s Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and again when she notes that childhood asthma rates in the Bronx are among the nation’s highest.

Sitting in her Washington, DC, campaign office, Gillibrand explains the way she’ll sell the Green New Deal in the face of fanatical GOP opposition and corporate pushback. She breaks it down into three components, all of which should be “bipartisan”: infrastructure, green jobs, and clean air and water. Yes, I reply, infrastructure spending—on roads and bridges, mass transit, sewer systems, railroads—used to be bipartisan, but it hasn’t been since the Republicans became a party of nihilists determined to crush Barack Obama. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is busy unraveling regulations that protect clean air and water, while the entire party mocks the Green New Deal as trying to abolish cows and air travel.

Gillibrand’s response is to tout her ability to bypass right-wing ideologues and appeal to Republican voters, as she has since her 2006 congressional race. “Cleaning up brownfields is bipartisan. Everybody has industrial pollution,” she says, comparing the problems she saw in New Hampshire with those in rural New York. Likewise, “Iowa has nitrates in their water because of runoff from agriculture. The Green New Deal is gonna help red and purple places.” As the senator of a blue state with many red patches, she adds, “I understand their economies. I sit on the Agriculture Committee and the Public Works Committee. I’m an expert on rural agriculture and manufacturing.” She believes she can talk about the Green New Deal in a way that makes sense to Republican voters. For better or worse, she reminds me of the way that Obama used to talk about creating “Obama-cans”: Republican voters who would support his agenda and defect from their Koch-addicted overlords. (Spoiler: They did not.)

Similarly, when Gillibrand talks about Medicare for All, it’s as an evangelist. Back when she ran on the issue in her red district in 2006, it was a limited plan that would simply allow people to buy into Medicare. Still, it was radical at the time, since few people were discussing it, and we were two years away from the Affordable Care Act push. Now there’s a very detailed Medicare for All bill, introduced by Representative Pramila Jayapal and over 100 co-sponsors, that lays out a mandatory single-payer system that would eliminate all co-pays and patient costs; expand benefits to include long-term care and dental and vision coverage; and move all Americans to Medicare within two years. 

But while Gillibrand endorses many of the goals of Jayapal’s bill, she does not support the legislation itself. “We’re all trying to get to the place where health care is a right and not a privilege,” she says. “And they believe, as I do, that the best way to do that is single-payer. That has to be our goal. But I think the quickest way to get there is not what Representative Jayapal is suggesting. I’d let people choose [Medicare] for a certain amount of time—maybe a four-year buy-in at 4 percent of income, and your employer then matches it at 4 percent. That’s 8 percent of income in America. That is enough; it will pay for itself. And if you give it a four-year buy-in, I wouldn’t be surprised if 90 percent of Americans buy in. If you offer it at an affordable rate, it is such a better health plan than most insurers are going to offer.” When I ask her office later what she plans to do if a significant number of Americans and their employers continue to prefer private insurance plans, and don’t voluntarily shift to Medicare, I get no answer; Sanders is drafting a new version of his Senate bill, and Gillibrand, apparently, doesn’t want to get ahead of the process. (After the print version of this piece went to press, Sanders introduced his bill, which Gillibrand co-sponsored, along with 2020 rivals Warren, Harris and Senator Cory Booker. It would transition all who qualify to the new Medicare plan over four years, ending private insurance except to cover elective procedures.)

Unlike some on the left, who would like to see Medicare for All funded by higher taxes on the wealthy, Gillibrand envisions it as an “earned benefit” (as it already is, at least for senior citizens) funded by payroll taxes. She has the same vision for her longtime priority of family leave, which would allow Americans to take 12 weeks of paid leave in a year to care for a new child or a sick family member, and would be funded by another payroll tax of 0.2 percent—an average of $2 a week, she stresses repeatedly on the stump.

Some see a payroll-tax hike as regressive, but Gillibrand disagrees. “No. No,” she insists. “Because if you pay for it with a tax increase on the rich, it can be taken away the second the Congress changes. But if you make it an earned benefit, it’s yours! You bought in. It will never be taken away if it’s yours. An earned benefit is a better model for a social safety net.” Payroll taxes would finance what Gillibrand envisions as a “common-good fund” to provide for health care, paid leave, and retirement security, and she also backs a higher estate tax and a financial-transaction tax.

Although she mentions her legislative work with “Bernie” at least four times in our interviews, and many more times on the stump, Gillibrand has no problem saying that she’s not a socialist. Indeed, she seems to welcome the question. Where Elizabeth Warren acknowledges she’s a capitalist, too, Gillibrand seems more aggressive in defending the label. Her approach to the financial sector is softer than Warren’s: She hasn’t sworn off donations from Wall Street, as Warren has, and Warren has a proposal to throw bank executives in jail when their companies commit crimes. I don’t hear that from Gillibrand, though she does suggest prosecuting “greedy” opioid manufacturers. At every campaign stop, she pits her version of “common good” capitalism against “corrupt capitalism.” She cites an example of the latter in her home state, when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced his decision to locate a new company headquarters in the New York City borough of Queens. Opposition was swift: Many Queens residents and community groups argued that the city was providing too much in the way of tax breaks and other support, and getting too little back from the largest public company in the world. Gillibrand opposed the structure of the deal but thought it could be improved. Instead, Bezos pulled the plug after public outcry.

“For me, what was frustrating was that Jeff Bezos made statements to the effect of: ‘I want to be in New York because New Yorkers are the greatest workers in the world, they’re great innovators, [and] we want to be part of the community,’” Gillibrand says now. “But the truth is, he never wanted any of that—he wanted a lot of tax breaks. And as soon as the local community wanted to have a voice, they ran away! So my greatest disappointment was in Jeff Bezos’s unwillingness to invest in the community. He chose greed over investment.”

I note that when Gillibrand discusses “greedy” capitalists, it makes voracious profit-seeking a merely personal failing. “Greed is a choice,” she replies. “I am a capitalist—but I think there is a huge difference between capitalism and greed. I don’t think every business is evil, but some businesses are greedy.” She ticks off a long list of malefactors that I will hear about constantly on the campaign trail: “Gun manufacturers who’d rather sell a gun to a teenager in Walmart than raise the age [to buy a gun legally]. Who would rather sell a weapon to someone with a severe mental illness, or with a violent background, than have universal background checks. Opioid manufacturers spewing out opioids and making them more addictive without telling doctors. Every polluter that’s ever polluted. That’s all corrupted capitalism; that’s greed.” In her view, government has a role in protecting capitalism by reining in greed through tight regulation.

While Gillibrand happily runs for president against her “friend” Bernie Sanders as an advocate of “common good” capitalism over socialism, she has been dogged by her issue with another member of Congress she once called a “friend”—former senator Al Franken. The two were squash partners, and Franken once made a video for NARAL New York touting Gillibrand’s toughness. “I got to tell you, she doesn’t want to lose,” Franken says in the video. “She’s a competitor—both in squash and in women’s reproductive rights.” Then she became the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation, after multiple charges of sexual misconduct emerged against him over two months. Many other senators followed her call immediately, but Gillibrand’s role as the first senator to call on Franken to resign has stuck with her. The conflict is widely depicted in the political press as a drag on her presidential hopes.

It certainly feels that way on Twitter, but not on the campaign trail. In her dozens of sessions with voters and a half-dozen local-press “gaggles,” the Franken issue never came up publicly, although one woman who said she otherwise loved Gillibrand did raise it with me privately, in Burlington, as a factor inhibiting her full support. But that’s one woman, out of the roughly 100 people I spoke with or listened to in a week of covering the senator. Franken is a factor for the national media, hyperactive Twitter folks, and some big Democratic donors. But out on the stump, Gillibrand’s not hearing about him—much to her relief.

That was true even after Politico revealed, on the eve of her Iowa trip, that one of Gillibrand’s top staffers had been accused of sexual harassment and making derogatory comments about women in the workplace. After an internal investigation, Gillibrand had him demoted but not fired—until Politico found more witnesses. The staffer was then let go, and a few days later, Gillibrand’s deputy chief of staff, who’d handled the internal investigation, left her office as well. Having just begun to emerge from the shadow of her alleged role in Franken’s departure, it was the last thing she needed. When the news broke just a day before our scheduled interview in Washington, I worried that she would cancel. But Gillibrand did not, and she fielded my questions unflappably, if not happily.

Shouldn’t she have enlisted outside help with the internal investigation? I asked. “Our office would have loved to have the benefit of someone outside doing it,” Gillibrand replied quickly. In fact, she had tried to expand the authority of independent investigators in the bill on the Senate’s sexual-harassment protocol that she sponsored with Senator Ted Cruz, but she was shot down. “One flaw is, we [in Congress] don’t have access to professional investigators. And let’s just say that I decided to spend my campaign money to hire one—well, that’s not ‘independent,’ because you’re paying for it.”

I asked what she says to people who wonder why Franken didn’t get the benefit of the doubt that she appeared to give her own staffer. Gillibrand stiffened a bit. “The cases are so different because of who I am,” she said. “Senator Franken had eight credible, corroborated allegations brought to light by the press for everyone to see. I said, ‘I do not think that these kinds of allegations are consistent with being able to be an effective senator, and he should resign.’

“That was my opinion on an issue. My opinion. I had no say whatsoever whether Senator Franken would choose to resign, or choose to stick it out and do his six-month ethics investigation. Those were his decisions. My decision was very simple: either remain silent, and defend him with my silence, or not. And it only comes up amongst Democratic elites, a few very affluent donors. If they’re angry about me standing beside female survivors—well, that’s on them!”

I made it home from Iowa in time to get to the Trump International Hotel & Tower, adjacent to Central Park, to see Gillibrand’s campaign kickoff. In her speech, she called the gleaming monstrosity “a shrine to greed.” It is also a spot where New York Women’s Marches have gathered since 2017, so there was a happy, feminist vibe in the mostly female crowd on an unseasonably warm spring day. Elizabeth Blumburg, a young woman wearing a pink pussy hat, told me that she “loves” Gillibrand, who is her senator—though she was currently supporting Kamala Harris for president. “We have so many candidates, whoever it is will be great,” Blumburg added. But she draws the line at Beto O’Rourke, who reminds her of a “bad boyfriend,” and she confessed to holding a grudge against Sanders for taking more than a month to endorse Clinton after she clinched the nomination in 2016. “But really, my thing is: Let’s just not fight.”

Onstage, Gillibrand was endorsed by a roster of activists championing sexual-assault prevention, LGBTQ rights, protection for Dreamers, and gun-safety laws. For all her outreach to purple-district voters, Gillibrand’s kickoff had drawn a solidly blue #Resistance crowd. There were no union representatives and little talk of economic issues per se. The one man onstage, Gabriel Blau, composed his endorsement as a conversation with his young son, telling him that Gillibrand had “stood up to ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ she stood up on gun issues, she stood up to help me and your father get married. This is what bravery is.”

Jackie Rowe-Adams, a Harlem mother who lost two children to gun violence, talked about Gillibrand’s support for gun-safety legislation “back when we were hopeless, we didn’t think anybody cared.” She revved up the crowd: “Ain’t no stoppin’ us now! Ladies, you can do it. Yes, you can! Men removed us from the table, but it’s over now. Number 45? We’re comin’ after you!”

Indeed, when it was her turn, Gillibrand did just that, tearing into Trump as someone who “demonizes the vulnerable and punches down. He puts his name in bold on every building. He does all of this because he wants us to believe he is strong. He is not. Our president is a coward. That’s not what we deserve—not what you deserve. We deserve a president who is brave; a president who will walk through fire to do what is right.” As Gillibrand hailed the courage of the activists who spoke before her, she added: “The formerly well-behaved women who organized, ran for office, voted in record numbers, and won in 2018—that, too, is brave.”

Gillibrand is building her campaign on the notion that she best represents that cadre of women—the ones who bravely ran in 2018, and also the ones who worked and voted for them. The middle-aged women, many (though not all) of them white, traumatized by Trump’s victory over Clinton, as Gillibrand was, and vowing to avenge her loss. First-quarter campaign fund-raising totals have not yet been released, though Gillibrand is not expected to be in the top tier. Still, it’s known that Gillibrand has $10 million on hand from her 2018 Senate campaign. She has topped the Democratic field in campaign appearances, with 59 across eight states. “It’s still so early, and name recognition is going to start to matter less as states get to know the candidates,” says Reynolds of Emily’s List, which is staying neutral in a race so rich with female talent.

Gillibrand has the blessing (as well as the curse) of drawing supporters who are ready to consider voting for any of the women running. Every single woman I spoke with who praises Gillibrand brings up at least one of the other three female senators vying for the nomination. After the kickoff rally, as Gillibrand was taking selfies with everyone who approached her, I talked to Katherine Scheirman, a retired Air Force colonel active in the fight against military sexual abuse, a cause that Gillibrand embraced early.

“She was one of the first who really made it an issue,” Scheirman told me. “A lot of people blew us off.” Then the military veteran did what every female voter I’ve met on the trail does (honestly, including the female candidates): She praised the other women running for president. “We have a wealth of good candidates,” she acknowledged. Then she caught herself and returned quickly to Gillibrand: “I’ll probably vote for her. She has a special place in my heart.”

To have a chance at winning, Gillibrand needs to close the deal with more women like Scheirman.

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