WASHINGTON – Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand has been telling women to get "off the sidelines" and into politics for the better part of a decade and she's doled out more than $1.5 million in recent years to help them do it.
But that's just part of what some observers say could be the New York Democrat's effort to win friends and influence politicians nationwide in advance of a possible run for the presidency in 2020.
All told, federal records show that Gillibrand has raised and then spent more than $2 million since 2013 to help other Democrats in every corner of the country, including the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. That's more than twice as much as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has raised and spent, and more than 10 times as much as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has raised and spent to help other federal candidates.
Gillibrand's generosity will make it hard for Democratic lawmakers who have received her help to say no if she comes around asking for a presidential endorsement, several political scientists and consultants said.
"That's the way you build loyalty and relationships," said Kelly Dittmar, assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Asked if Gillibrand's aggressive fundraising and donations to other candidates was part of an effort to boost herself nationally, her longtime political aide, Glen Caplin said: "That's not how she looks at it."
Instead, Gillibrand's main focus is to help elect more women to office.
"It is clear that she is a true believer in championing women," said Caplin. "She believes the way to long-term systemic change to make Congress work better is to have more women in office."
Dittmar and several other sources said that Gillibrand's effort to aid women Democrats in particular obviously stems from her heart rather than her ambition.
"She genuinely does the work" to benefit female candidates, Dittmar said. "It's not just a political ploy."
That work began after Gillibrand won her first full term in the Senate in 2010.
"On the night she won her Senate election with 63 percent of the vote, she was talking to me not about her victory, but about the fact that for the first time in nearly 30 years there had been a reduction of the number of women in elected office and what we could do about it," feminist icon Gloria Steinem said in a speech a year later, when Gillibrand formed Off the Sidelines.
Off the Sidelines began as an informal effort to boost women candidates, but it later morphed into the kind of vehicle that other members of Congress use to raise money and contribute to other politicians: a political action committee called a "leadership PAC."
Since January 2013, Off the Sidelines has contributed more than $1.5 million to federal candidates, including $347,000 for the 2018 election.
Those numbers outstrip what Warren, Sanders and other potential Democrats have given, both since 2013 and in the current election cycle. In comparison, Warren's leadership PAC gave $270,000 to Democratic politicians from January 2017 through the end of April while Sanders' doled out only $25,000.
Gillibrand's gift-giving lead over her potential primary rivals grows even bigger when you consider that, unlike most members of Congress, she has two leadership PACs. Her "Empire PAC," which gives money primarily to male Senate candidates and progressive political committees, has dished out $490,000 since the start of 2013.
What's more, the Off the Sidelines PAC has given money to candidates in states that matter the most to potential presidential candidates. Gillibrand gave $5,000 each to two women who are running for the House in Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucuses, and another $5,000 to a female House candidate in New Hampshire, the first primary state.
Gillibrand has even done something many politicians don't dare to do. She has weighed in on congressional primaries, favoring women candidates and showering them with money. And so far, it's paid off: In the March primary in Texas, for example, Gillibrand backed seven Democratic women – and all of them won.
That's a sign that Gillibrand is willing to take risks, said Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor of political science at the University at Buffalo. After all, backing primary candidates who lose can leave a politician with an enemy: the candidate who won.
But in backing about 50 women House candidates nationwide so far, Gillibrand seems to be doing herself some good if she runs for president in 2020, Neiheisel added.
"Greasing the wheel helps," he said.
Gillibrand's efforts to aid other politicians show that she has another important strength as a politician, too, said Joe Slade White, a semi-retired Democratic consultant from East Aurora.
"What it shows is that she's very good, and she has people on her team who are very good, at raising money," said White, who has long done work for another potential 2020 contender, former Vice President Joe Biden. "It's really important because one has to be able to raise money to run for president – and it's a lot of money."
Gillibrand has shown over and over again that she's good at raising money. For the 2018 election alone, she raised $504,462 for Off the Sidelines, $53,500 for Empire PAC and a whopping $13.9 million for her own re-election bid.
In other words, Gillibrand is so good at raising money that she can afford to be generous – really generous.
Federal records show that Off the Sidelines even gave Warren, a potential 2020 rival, $5,000 for her re-election bid.