On Tuesday night, Kirsten Gillibrand gathered her family and her campaign manager, Jess Fassler, at her home in Troy, N.Y., for a reality check.
The New York senator had barely registered in polls all year despite burning through a $10 million campaign war chest. That meant she was about to get shut out of future Democratic presidential debates. If she didn’t hit at least 2 percent in either of the two polls coming out Wednesday, Gillibrand couldn’t carry on in the race, they decided.
Story Continued Below
In August, Gillibrand made an all-out push to stay on the debate stage, dumping $1.5 million on TV and digital ads, blitzing through early voting states and making the rounds on cable news. But the big-spending plan yielded a single 2 percent poll showing. Her once-mighty campaign account dwindled to about $800,000, according to an aide familiar with the total.
The polls released Wednesday, the deadline to qualify for the next debate, didn’t help. So Gillibrand filmed a dropout video that morning and delivered the news to her staff at headquarters by midafternoon.
“It’s important to know when it’s not your time,” Gillibrand said in the video.
At one point, Gillibrand looked on paper like a legitimate, if not formidable, presidential candidate — one with flaws but also the pluses of a perfect electoral record and a distinctly feminist message that looked like a compelling counter to Donald Trump. But Gillibrand, dogged by criticism for pushing for Sen. Al Franken’s resignation, never took flight.
It’s a cautionary tale for the remaining low-polling candidates struggling to compete against the four or five leaders of the field.
“Gillibrand was drowned out by the top tier, in the same way the rest of the candidates who are still in it and aren’t in those top five are being drowned out,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a Democratic strategist who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run. “It’s a sign for all of them that they’re probably not going to break out, either.”
A person familiar with the Gillibrand campaign, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, compared the 2020 Democratic primary to the equally crowded 2016 Republican primary. “The wheel kept turning. Everyone had a moment,” the person said, citing the boom-and-bust cycles of media attention and polling that saw Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson get moments in the sun.
“But this race, for whatever reason, the wheel hasn’t turned,” the person continued.
The one exception is Pete Buttigieg, who burst onto the national scene with a string of viral moments early this year and led the pack in second-quarter fundraising. But so far, he’s the only outsider to get that chance, as high-profile governors, senators, mayors and members of Congress have all languished near zero in national polling throughout 2019. In recent weeks, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California have dropped out.
Gillibrand, who championed women and families, railed against a spate of restrictive anti-abortion laws in Republican states, making it a rallying cry for her presidential run. But it still didn’t generate attention: Days ahead of the implementation of a new anti-abortion law in Missouri in late August, Gillibrand held a town hall to bring attention to it, but no national news organization showed up.
“She could never get enough oxygen. None of the candidates, outside just a few, really can,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic consultant who’s unaffiliated in the primary. “She just never got a look — a real look — from anybody outside the people she personally met. But the DNC qualifications squeezed the amount of time any of these candidates can actually do that.”
Gillibrand’s challenges weren’t limited to standing out in a crowded field. From the outset, she was asked often about her political transformation, from a conservative House member from upstate New York to a staunchly liberal senator. She was repeatedly pressed on being the first Democratic senator to call for Franken to resign. Gillibrand defended the move, noting that eight women had accused the Minnesota Democrat of sexual misconduct, but said, “If a few Democratic donors are angry because I stood by eight women, that’s on them.”
Hours after Gillibrand’s announcement Wednesday night, both she and Franken trended on Twitter together, seemingly inextricably linked.
“Franken was definitely a problem in terms of fundraising,” the person familiar with the Gillibrand campaign said. “He just kept coming up, over and over again.”
Jen Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, said there was “no question” that the Franken ordeal had a “huge, outsized impact on her.”
“The sub-current of her entire candidacy was the Franken resignation and people unfairly pinning that on her,” Palmieri said. “It’s a crowded field, and it’s hard for all the candidates, but that really hampered her.”
Gillibrand, like several other candidates, has cited the Democratic National Committe’s debate criteria as an insurmountable hurdle. The polling and donation thresholds “caused a seismic shift” in the race, and “that’s what did in Gillibrand, and frankly,” it will do the same to other candidates, Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist, said.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. But Gillibrand seemed to suffer from especially bad luck and bad timing.
Gillibrand, one of the loudest Trump critics, lacked the president’s ability to command the media’s attention. She launched her presidential bid at Trump’s doorstep in Manhattan, hoping to goad the president into a tweet. But the gambit had little national effect, engulfed by a media-cycle tsunami when Attorney General William Barr released his much-maligned summary of the Mueller report the same afternoon.
Her first major policy roll-out, on clean elections, ran up against news of Mueller’s letter disagreeing with Barr’s assessment of his report. And on the July debate stage, Gillibrand took on Joe Biden over previous comments on women working outside the home — but she previewed her attack line the preceding weekend, and Biden was ready for it, accusing Gillibrand of opportunism.
She still landed a few memorable one-liners, promising to “Clorox” the Oval Office during a debate and drawing a “not very polite” admonition from Fox News host Chris Wallace. She campaigned creatively, too, slinging back whiskey at an Iowa gay bar and arm-wrestling college students.
But her most viral moment came at a restaurant in Iowa, and it wasn’t especially flattering. As Gillibrand was giving a speech, a woman maneuvered near her — but not to listen or ask a question. “Sorry, I’m just trying to get some ranch,” she said.
Gillibrand did, eventually, get a Trump tweet, which came hours after she announced her departure from the race, posting that it was “a sad day for Democrats.”
“I’m glad they never found out that she was the one I was really afraid of!” Trump tweeted, swiping at Gillibrand.
A Gillibrand aide confirmed that the senator plans to endorse a candidate in the 2020 primary. On Wednesday night, she fielded calls from nearly a half-dozen candidates congratulating her on a well-run race. But she’s in no hurry to weigh in yet.
Instead, Gillibrand plans to refocus on electing women up and down the ballot, restarting “Off The Sidelines,” her now-dormant political group committed to supporting female candidates. In October, Gillibrand will headline an Annie’s List event in Texas.
Gillibrand leaned into her promise to be a champion for women and families on the campaign trail, hewing closely to her opening line on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” when she identified as a “young mom.” But the female-forward message was ultimately too narrow, some strategists said.
“I don’t think the fact that she was talking about equal pay, sexual assaults in the military, or reproductive rights turned off any Democratic voters. I just think no candidate can only be focused on one gender,” Solis Doyle said.
So on Wednesday night, alongside her staff, Gillibrand closed out her campaign with a whiskey toast.