Members Only | August 30, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Dem Donors Doom Gillibrand

Party elites never forgave her for doing the right thing.

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The last time I talked about Kirsten Gillibrand, I wondered if an accusation of sexual misconduct coming out of her own office might derail her presidential campaign.

It didn’t. 

What did derail her campaign, in part, was showing moral leadership regarding sexual misconduct in the Democratic Party. Elite party figures in New York refused to forgive her alleged betrayal and her “opportunism” in taking down one of their own. Contrary to popular belief, the Democratic Party isn’t seeking a purist as its nominee.

If it were, Gillibrand’s unapologetic feminism would have been a critical asset.

What helped sink Gillibrand’s campaign was doing the right thing, politically and morally.  

Of all the candidates, Gillibrand was alone in her laser focus on women’s issues and women’s rights. Given the president is the pussy-grabber-in-chief, this was a potent strategy. Moreover, Gillibrand had built a reputation as a critic of the Pentagon’s endless mishandling of sexual assault cases. She was the first Democrat, though not the last, to call for Al Franken’s resignation after eight women accused the former senator of sexual misconduct. She was the face of #MeToo in the US Congress.

Then came news in March of a close advisor being accused of sexually harassing a young female staffer who was 10 years his junior. Worse: Gillibrand fired him only after Politico broke the story of “new details” into the allegations against him.

Now that’s it’s “her turn in the barrel,” I wrote here at the time, “it’s important how she comports herself. If she’s anything less than totally transparent, she’s going to raise more questions and increase political scrutiny.” None of it mattered though. 

Doing the wrong thing—failing to thoroughly investigate an aide—didn’t sink her.

What did sink her, in part, was doing the right thing.

From the Times this morning: “Her prominent role as the first Democratic senator to call for Al Franken’s resignation dogged her throughout the race, with voters and reporters bringing it up and some Democratic donors denouncing her.”

From Politico on Thursday: “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.’”

“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.”

All this was intensified by Jane Mayer, who wrote last month an exhaustive New Yorker profile of Franken. While sifting through allegations against him, the award-winning journalist put Franken at the center of the story, not his alleged victims. When Mayer “asked him if he truly regretted his decision to resign, he said, ‘Oh, yeah. Absolutely.’” 

Thirty-six Democratic Senators called for Al Franken to resign, including current presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. But only Gillibrand was made into a villain. That was probably enough for elite New Yorkers (a major source of Democratic funding) who see The New Yorker as gospel. If Mayer was confirming everything they already believed true, it was true.

None of this is to say Gillibrand should still be running.

For one thing, the Democratic field is huge, and only a few candidates are energizing the party’s base. Moreover, there’s Donald Trump to consider. He’s the single most important factor on Democratic voters’ minds. (He’s the only reason Joe Biden is a contender.) In that environment, the best campaigners will struggle for attention. 

Speaking of which, Gillibrand isn’t the best campaigner. Not even close.

A pivotal blunder: She spent a million and a half bucks on television ads to drive up polling numbers in primary and caucus states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but no one was doing any polling in those states before the deadline to the third Democratic debate. She burned a pile of cash for nothing. Soon afterward, she called it quits. 

There is no single reason why Gillibrand’s campaign foundered. (Maybe she’s just unlucky.) But we do know Gillibrand had a handicap (i.e., Franken) that no one else had, and we can reasonably claim that handicap says more about Democratic elites than it does her. The party, meanwhile, doesn’t want a purist, contrary to popular belief. If it did, Gillibrand’s unapologetic feminism would have been a critical asset.

It wasn’t.

As one of Gillibrand’s supporters told the Times, “Those who are fiercest and who choose to go toe-to-toe with entrenched misogyny are rarely rewarded.”

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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