Struggling in White House bid, Democrat Gillibrand seeks bump in Trump country

By Amanda Becker
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand speaks during the second night of the first U.S. 2020 presidential election Democratic candidates debate in Miami, Florida, U.S.

By Amanda Becker

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand rolled through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan last week on a bus emblazoned with "He broke it, we'll fix it," as part of a campaign tour highlighting what she called President Donald Trump's "broken promises" to the region.

Gillibrand told laid-off auto workers in Youngstown, Ohio, and healthcare workers in Pittsburgh she would repair the damage of Trump's presidency if voters choose her as the Democratic nominee to take him on in November 2020.

But to do that, she will require a significant boost. The New York senator is stuck in the bottom of national polls of the field's 25 candidates, and time is running out.

Posing for selfies with voters after a town hall on gun violence in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on Friday, Gillibrand said she needed thousands more supporters to qualify for the third Democratic primary debate in mid-September.

"I've got a month and a half to accomplish that," she said in an interview with Reuters. "It's a heavy lift, but I'm going to do it."

To earn a spot in the September debate, candidates must draw at least 2% support in four national or early-voting state polls, and have 130,000 unique donors, including 400 in 20 separate states.

Gillibrand failed to catch fire after a spirited performance during the first televised debate in June. She remained at just 1% support among Democratic voters in a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken June 29-July 2, and was below 1% in a NBC/WSJ poll released on Thursday.

Gillibrand's campaign did not disclose her latest fundraising total ahead of the second-quarter filing deadline on Monday, a likely sign she did not raise as much money as many of her opponents.

In any other election cycle, Gillibrand and rivals including fellow Senators Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, as well as former Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro, would be top-tier candidates, Democratic strategists said.

But she is in a crowded field competing for donors and media attention with nationally known contenders like former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders.

"I don't think it's a reflection of a bad campaign or a poor candidate," said Doug Thornell with SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic strategy firm founded by Obama administration veterans. "If history is any guide, she should have an opportunity to get a second look."


SEARCHING FOR A SECOND LOOK

Gillibrand, 52, sought that second look in three Midwestern states Trump wrested from Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, touting a political resume she cited as proof she could win over more conservative and swing voters.

Before joining the Senate, she represented a heavily Republican congressional district in upstate New York that she was told she could not win as a Democrat.

After being appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated when Hillary Clinton became Barack Obama's secretary of state, Gillibrand was re-elected in a 2010 special election. She won full terms in 2012 and 2018, when she carried nearly every county, including 18 Trump won in 2016.

While Gillibrand is best known nationally for her work addressing sexual assault in the military and her call for former Democratic Senator Al Franken to resign over sexually inappropriate conduct, she notes she has spent the past decade on agriculture and infrastructure panels.

At modestly sized campaign events, Gillibrand took notes in a leatherbound notebook and said her "super power" is the ability to find common ground on any political issue with anyone, anywhere. Gillibrand leaned on her experience as a mother of 11- and 15-year-old sons to explain racial disparities in marijuana sentencing and "white privilege" to a mother who said white voters are also suffering. At more than one event she said her New York district was not unlike the Midwestern areas in which she campaigned.

"There is no substitute for just showing up, meeting voters, telling them about your vision and listening to them and their concerns," Gillibrand said during her Reuters interview.

"I don't have unanimous name recognition," she added, "so it's going to take me a long time to introduce myself to places around this country."

Political strategist Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, said Gillibrand's slow-and-steady campaigning could lead to the breakout she needs - if she has the time and money.

Finney said the fight Gillibrand showed in her first congressional race could enable her to persevere long enough to draw voters in with a bold policy proposal, or to make the case why she is best to take on Trump.

"I think part of what people liked is she didn't back down, she didn't take no for an answer, so part of it is remind people what they like about you," Finney said.

Nearly every voter who spoke to Reuters at Gillibrand's events said they were in the window-shopping phase.

Jaladah Aslam, a labor and political consultant who introduced Gillibrand at the Youngstown event, was among the undecided. Afterward, she praised Gillibrand's performance, noting she saw people nodding and liking what they heard.

"She was prepared," Aslam said. "She wasn't stumbling. I loved when she started taking notes. Thank God someone is actually listening and not coming here to give us a political speech."


(Reporting By Amanda Becker; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Chizu Nomiyama)