WASHINGTON – A senator from upstate New York is running for president, but it's almost as if the Democratic leaders and donors of the Buffalo area haven't noticed.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, who hails from the Albany suburbs, has not yet won one prominent endorsement from politicians from metro Buffalo or the surrounding counties.
And in the first three months of her campaign, campaign finance reports show she has raised only about a tenth as much money from the region as Hillary Clinton – a former New York senator – did in the same period of her race for the presidency four years ago.
Gillibrand's aides attribute that to the campaign's strategy of focusing heavily on early-primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire rather than on in-state endorsements.
But local political leaders cite two other factors in Gillibrand's lack of support from the region. They say many politicians and donors are reluctant to commit to one candidate when there are more than 20 Democrats in the race. And privately, some say Gillibrand just hasn't built the strong emotional ties to the Buffalo region that Clinton did in her eight years in the Senate.
It’s also very early in a campaign that won’t end for nearly 18 months. That being the case, several sources – including Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo and Erie County Chairman Jeremy Zellner – said Gillibrand had not yet even directly asked them for an endorsement.
"She just started her campaign officially, what, about a month ago?" Zellner said, referring to Gillibrand's official campaign kick-off in New York in late March. "So I would expect her to really ramp it up around here really soon."
A dearth of endorsements
Gillibrand’s effort has struggled to gain traction nationally, and that appears to have led to some reluctance among prominent New York Democrats to jump on board her effort.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls shows her at 0.6 percent nationally, far behind the clear Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who stood at 41.4 percent.
Several sources said New York politicians will be reluctant to endorse Gillibrand so long as she remains such a long shot.
"People have a tendency to gravitate to where they think things are going," said Higgins, who said he has a strong relationship with Gillibrand but was reluctant to endorse any candidate this early.
Higgins also noted a stark contrast between the Clinton campaigns of 2008 and 2016 and Gillibrand 2020. In both of those races, Clinton was the early favorite, prompting people to want to endorse her.
This year, though, many prominent Western New York Democrats seem to be reluctant to even discuss Gillibrand’s efforts. Neither Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown nor Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes returned requests for comment on the senator’s campaign, although a Brown spokesman said the mayor remains uncommitted in the race.
Most sources who were willing to discuss Gillibrand’s effort echoed the thoughts of Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
"I'm waiting to see, like many other people, who is going to be in the final field, and then make a determination as to who would be the strongest candidate to take on Donald Trump," Poloncarz explained.
The Erie County Democratic Committee has no immediate plans to endorse a candidate, either, even though the county party backed Clinton within days of her 2016 campaign announcement.
Zellner attributed that to the party’s long-term ties to the Clintons. This year, the local party has waited in part thinking that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would enter the race.
Now, "we're looking for some direction from the state party and the governor," Zellner said.
A top Gillibrand campaign aide said she simply hasn't prioritized in-state endorsements. Instead, the campaign is focusing its efforts on the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping that strong showings there can propel Gillibrand to the nomination.
But some candidates, such as Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, are taking a different approach, seeking out endorsements as a show of strength. All 11 of that state’s House Democrats have endorsed Booker, as have the governor, lieutenant governor and the leaders of the state Legislature.
Gillibrand boasts the support of only one House Democrat from New York: Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan. Gov. Cuomo and Rep. Tom Suozzi of Glen Cove have endorsed Biden. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of Cold Spring and Rep. Kathleen Rice of Garden City have endorsed their former congressional colleague, Beto O'Rourke of Texas.
Does any of this matter?
Many political scientists think so. Four academics wrote a 2008 book called “The Party Decides” that studied the nomination process between 1980 and 2004. They found that endorsements add up to an important “invisible primary” in many elections.
“Early endorsements in the invisible primary are the most important cause of candidate success in the state primaries and caucuses,” the authors wrote.
Then again, Barack Obama didn’t lead in endorsements for the 2008 Democratic nomination; Clinton did. And Trump trailed far behind in endorsements among Republicans in 2016, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s “Endorsement Primary.”
That being the case, Gillibrand can hold out hope that her campaign will still catch fire with voters and party leaders such as Judith A. Hunter, the Democratic chairwoman in Livingston County.
"The field is so big I really haven't heard of people putting all their eggs in one basket yet," said Hunter, who nonetheless praised Gillibrand for her work on rural and agricultural issues. "It is such a big field that people are just at this point waiting and watching."
There’s also dollars-and-cents evidence that Gillibrand’s effort has not yet resonated in Western New York.
Gillibrand’s 2020 campaign raised $4,200 from donors in Western New York in the three months since she launched her exploratory effort in January. In contrast, Clinton raised $41,524 from the region in the first three months of her 2016 campaign, and $14,250 in the same period in 2008, when she was a presidential candidate and a U.S. senator from New York.
Of that $4,200 that Gillibrand raised from Western New York, $2,700 of it came from one source: Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
"I contributed to my friend Senator Gillibrand, who has consistently supported my past campaigns, and we also worked together in Washington," Hochul said. "Senator Gillibrand has been a champion for women in New York and beyond."
Hochul added, though, that she has not officially endorsed Gillibrand or any other presidential candidate.
Raising money from within New York state has not been a priority for the Gillibrand campaign, an aide said. Instead, she is focusing on raising money from small donors nationwide who have come to know her through her fight against sexual assault in the military and on college campuses, or through her work on other issues.
Gillibrand’s fundraising numbers – and every other candidate’s – underestimate how much she really raised from the region. That’s because the Federal Election Commission does not require that donations of under $200 be itemized.
Even so, several sources said Gillibrand’s low fundraising total from Western New York reflected a hard reality: A decade after she joined the Senate, plenty of Democrats – from elected officials to party activists – said they don’t really know her or even her top staffers well.
They complained that her visits to Western New York rarely go beyond quick fly-in/fly-out press conferences, and that her staff doesn't delve deep into local issues that the senator could influence from Washington.
They said this, too, poses a contrast with Clinton, who diligently nourished her support statewide by attending political events and by making sure her staffers were well-versed in local issues.
Gillibrand's aides paint a different picture of her activities upstate. During her re-election campaign last year, her staff churned out a 12-page list of accomplishments that would benefit the state, such as legislation boosting rural broadband, studying waterfront erosion on the Great Lakes and funding construction at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
"Senator Gillibrand has a proven record of delivering for the people of Western New York which has been reflected in her strong election results," said Evan Lukaske, national press secretary for the Gillibrand presidential campaign. "While she is out on the trail building a grassroots campaign, she has not lost focus on securing millions in federal funding for the region and her office continues to provide exceptional constituent services. She is proud to represent Western New Yorkers in the Senate."
And while few Western New York voters are putting money down on Gillibrand's presidential campaign, history provides proof that early strength in the region bears no relation to a presidential candidate’s long-term success.
After all, of the seven presidential campaigns waged by New York-based candidates in the past 12 years, one raised far less than any of the others.
That race? The one Trump ran four years ago. No prominent local elected Republicans endorsed him early in his 2016 race, and he raised only $500 from Western New York in the first three months of that effort.