Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (Facebook)
When U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand faced Republican challenger Chele Farley in their one and only 30-minute debate during the Senate campaign last fall, she pledged to serve all six years of her term if re-elected. But that was way back when the federal government was actually open.
Gillibrand started to walk back that statement two days after defeating Farley 2-to-1 at the polls. In an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, ostensibly to promote her new children’s book about women’s suffrage, she said she would give a 2020 run some “long, hard thought.”
Lately, it seems, those thoughts are turning into action. Her campaign has leased 5,000 square feet of office space in Troy, NY, which is just across the Hudson River from Albany, where Gillibrand grew up, and not far from the suburb of Brunswick, where her family has a home. It’s the kind of space a campaign might want to set up its headquarters, out of the bright lights of the big city, and the constant gaze of national media.
She is also hiring a team of seasoned political pros and planning a trip next weekend to Iowa, a crucial battleground in presidential primary season as the first-in-the nation caucus state. The senator’s been holding small group meetings with political influencers—listening to their concerns likely with the aim of crafting her campaign’s message to address them.
Glen Caplin, a spokesman for Gillibrand, declined to comment. But the writing is on the wall.
If Gillibrand does decide to jump in the race, don’t underestimate the junior senator—even though early polling shows her favorability numbers below the likes of Vice President Joe Biden; and a recent poll from the left-leaning blog Daily Kos, showed her in last place among eight candidates, tied with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
She’s been the underdog in races before, only to score an upset victory. Just ask former Congressman “Kick Ass” John Sweeney, who she beat in 2006. He was the four-term Republican incumbent with yawning leads against her in early polls.
I spoke to him last spring while reporting a profile about Gillibrand’s political origin story, and he recalled that his advisers told him not to debate her because that would give her more legitimacy in the race. Sweeney said that was a “critical mistake” on his part. When I told Gillibrand about his comment in an interview last spring, she laughed. “Oh yeah, he should have done that, I would have crushed him.”
Still, Gillibrand still faces serious obstacles. Her lack of name recognition is part of the reason for her low poll numbers. She’s also taken hits for her leadership in the #MeToo movement, in particular after she called for Senator Al Franken to resign. Some donors objected. But there are women’s advocates who want someone like Gillibrand to be unabashed about their positions.
“The fact is Gillibrand executed a well-reasoned power move, which is exactly why she can and should take responsibility for it,” Alexis Grennell wrote in The Daily Beast last month.
If she does get in the race, the field is expected to get crowded fast. Gillibrand would join Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, among declared candidates, with the likes of Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and maybe even Mayor Bill de Blasio waiting in the wings.
Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.