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Why Kirsten Gillibrand's presidential campaign went nowhere

WASHINGTON – The slow and agonizing death of Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand's presidential dream began in the bright lights of Rachel Maddow's MSNBC studio just two days after the New York Democrat announced her campaign in January.

"She has been on her own party's right. She has been on her own party's left," Maddow, a darling of many Democrats, said in introducing Gillibrand.

Maddow then went on to ask Gillibrand about her evolution from a pro-gun, anti-immigration House member a dozen years ago to the senator most likely to vote against Donald Trump, the pro-gun, anti-immigrant Republican president, today.

The next weekend, Gillibrand got hit with similar questions in Iowa, where caucuses kick off the presidential primary season, and on the network Sunday morning shows.

According to a Democratic consultant with ties to Gillibrand, that was the beginning of the end.

"The first couple weeks of the campaign, every piece of coverage was about her former positions – on guns, on immigration, etc.," said that consultant, who asked not to be identified by name. "And I think that contributed to a lack of trust among voters."

That lack of trust, combined with a narrow message, made it difficult for Gillibrand to break through in a field of more than 20 candidates, said political consultants and observers from across the country who've kept a close eye on her campaign.

The result? Gillibrand left the race on Wednesday, registering at 0.1% in the latest RealClearPolitics national polling average.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand campaigns for president in New Hampshire in June. (Neal Hamberg/Special to The News)

A lack of trust

Deluged with questions about her past positions, Gillibrand always responded with a steady, consistent answer: She had changed for the better.

She took up the cause of gun control after meeting the family and friends of Nyasia Pryear-Yard, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn who was shot to death in 2009. Similarly, she told CNN that her anti-immigrant stance a decade ago was "not kind" and that she had to reverse course to represent a diverse state in the Senate.

But it seems that Gillibrand and her aides misread how Democrats would view such explanations.

"I think that they thought that she was a far better-known and sort of more beloved figure to the base than she actually was," that political consultant said.

The trouble didn't end with questions about her shifting stances. Everywhere she went, reporters asked about her 2017 decision to demand the resignation of Sen. Al Franken, a popular Minnesota Democrat, amid charges of inappropriate behavior around women.

"The Al Franken thing was something I heard over and over and over in regard to her candidacy," said Jerry Crawford, a longtime Democratic lawyer and activist in Iowa. "Some people think that he got a raw deal, and she was associated with that in many people's minds."

Several large Democratic donors swore off giving to Gillibrand because of her role in Franken's departure. And a handful of voters interviewed by The Buffalo News in Iowa and New Hampshire said they thought Gillibrand forced Franken out in order to destroy his presidential ambitions.

Gillibrand steadfastly defended demanding her onetime friend's departure from the Senate.

"You have to stand up for what's right, especially when it's hard," Gillibrand told an Iowa voter in January.

But still the Franken questions kept coming as Gillibrand languished in the polls and struggled to raise funds.

"There's no question that people – especially the national press – could not stop themselves from talking about it," a Gillibrand campaign aide said Thursday. "Everybody wanted their pound of flesh."

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand speaks to a crowd at the Livery Deli in Boone, Iowa, in January. (Rachel Mummey/New York Times)

A narrow message

Gillibrand didn't help herself, either, with a narrow message that seemed to be aimed almost exclusively at female voters.

"I think she had a difficult time articulating the rationale for her candidacy," said Rose Kapolczynski, a California-based Democratic consultant. "She had a very strong feminist theme to her campaign – but she wasn't the only woman in the race, right?"

Two better-known candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, pretty much share Gillibrand's views on women's and family issues, thereby limiting Gillibrand's appeal, Kapolczynski noted.

Still, Gillibrand made a compelling case for being the candidate at the forefront of issues affecting women and families. She was the #MeToo senator before #MeToo was a hashtag, leading the way in the Senate in combating sexual assault in the military and on college campuses. She led the way, too, on the fight for family leave, for equal pay for women, for abortion rights.

She tried to make that clear with the distinctively feminist bent of her campaign. Her logo, and much of the merchandise on her website, featured the color pink.

And her campaign slogan – "Brave Wins!" – tried to portray her as a daring feminist leader.

The trouble is, that slogan doesn't tell voters what kind of president Gillibrand would be.

"It doesn't say anything," said New York Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "The pollsters who said that it did should have their licenses lifted."

Worse yet, Sheinkopf said, Gillibrand's woman-centric message was out of step with what's most important to many Democratic voters: toning down the temperature of American politics by defeating Trump in 2020 and addressing the economic concerns that helped get Trump elected three years ago.

Kelly Winfrey, coordinator of research and outreach for the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, agreed that Gillibrand's campaign was just too narrowly targeted.

"You know, you've got to be able to appeal to enough men as well to win the nomination and ultimately win the presidency," Winfrey noted.

Surrounded by her family, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announces that she will run for president in 2020 on Jan. 16, 2019, in Troy. (Getty Images)

A crowded field

Gillibrand's aides attribute her campaign's demise largely to an inability to get her message heard amid the din of a historically large field of more than 20 candidates.

"It's just a very, very crowded media environment," said that Gillibrand campaign aide. "And it can be hard to break through."

Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire – Gillibrand's alma mater – agreed. But Fowler also said Gillibrand, by her very nature, might not have been the kind of candidate who could build name recognition and support amid a lot of tough competition.

Gillibrand, who hails from a prominent Albany political family, doesn't have the same sort of dynamic personal story as some of the leading Democratic candidates, Fowler noted.

"Anybody who's going to break out of that pack needed to have something very compelling, other than, 'I'm a fighter and I work hard and I've done a lot to improve the treatment of women,' " Fowler said.

Gillibrand tried to stand out. Throughout much of her campaign, she scheduled more events in Iowa and New Hampshire – the first primary state – than any other candidate. She scheduled so many, in fact, that in June, she was rushing from one New Hampshire event to another, only taking a handful of questions, when Warren was lingering for a selfie with everyone who wanted one at every one of her events.

"People in New Hampshire like that personal touch," said New Hampshire State Rep. Gerri Cannon, a Democrat. "If you just preach and walk out the door, you're missing an opportunity."

Gillibrand tried breaking through, too, with an aggressive social media campaign – one that, in the end, became an appeal for the 130,000 individual donors she needed to qualify for the September Democratic debate.

She never reached that total. She also never reached 2% in four qualifying polls, the other requirement for appearing on the Democratic debate stage next month.

That, more than anything, finally drove Gillibrand from the race. She announced her departure in an interview with The New York Times and in a video that offered a humble coda to her "Brave Wins" candidacy.

“It's important to know when it's not your time,” Gillibrand said.

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