Kirsten Gillibrand’s Transition

Despite the 2018 midterm elections just three months passed, the chaos of the 2020 presidential race has already begun. Indeed, since November 8, 2016, when President Donald Trump shocked the world with his Electoral College victory, Democrats have plotted to regain the White House. Politicians of all experience levels and political leanings, from the progressive former California Attorney General and present United States senator, Kamala Harris, to the three-term representative of rural Maryland, John Delaney, have entered the race; however, one stands out in stark contrast to the others. As an elected official, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has altered her stances drastically; once known as the epitome of a  moderate, the Albany native has become firmly entrenched among the most liberal members of the Senate, behind only progressive icons Elizabeth Warren and Harris based off her voting record. Two key factors propel Gillibrand’s shift: a substantial modulation to her electorate and presidential ambitions in lockstep with the feminist wing of the Democratic Party.

In 2006, Gillibrand prepared to challenge incumbent Republican John Sweeney in New York’s twentieth congressional district, a mix of rural and suburban towns outside of Albany. Sweeney regarded Gillibrand’s challenge lightly, and with good reason; no Republican had lost the district for over one hundred years. However, Gillibrand appealed directly to Sweeney’s constituents through conservative populism: a reduction in taxes for the middle class, including an outright repeal of the gasoline tax, increased border patrol, including funding for steel slats, and protection of the Second Amendment. Gillibrand even proudly boasted of her “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Once in the House, Gillibrand promptly joined the Blue Dog Coalition, an amalgamation of less radical Democrats in more vulnerable seats. Following her ascension to the Senate upon then-Senator Clinton’s resignation to become Secretary of State, though, Gillibrand no longer spoke for only her petite collection of towns; rather, the majority of her constituents now resided in metropolitan New York or the Big Apple proper, so Gillibrand had to adjust her views in order to secure reelection. Immediately, she began to ameliorate her position on firearms to match New Yorkers’, and that “A” from the NRA plummeted. On other issues, like paid family leave, the cease of President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and gay marriage, Gillibrand became a standard-carrier for the party. She has repeatedly disavowed her prior stances while clearly indicating that her volatility emerged only due to an introduction to a new perspective.

In the long term, Gillibrand retained her eye for the presidency and sought to establish a base before entering officially. Plagued by both a lack of name recognition, especially when compared to former Vice President Joe Biden and former 2016 Democratic candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, and a clear lane in which to run, Gillibrand’s hopes rely heavily on creating a specific persona: the pro-female candidate who intends to galvanize the old guard and eradicate Washington’s deeply rooted sexism. In her memoir, Off the Sidelines: Speak Up, Be Fearless, and Change Your World, the senator voiced her disgust at her male colleagues, who criticized her hair and weight gain following her pregnancy. Gillibrand’s comments preceded the #MeToo movement; however, the latter’s momentum provided Gillibrand with the courage to advocate for repercussions for then-Senator Al Franken, of whom pictures emerged while groping an unconscious woman. Gillibrand’s fiery passion, while morally consistent with her outrage over Trump’s allegations, drew much criticism from Democrats on account of Franken’s seniority and might, but she refused to back down: “Franken is entitled to whatever process wanted, if he wanted to say and wait six months for his ethics hearing. His decision was to resign. My decision was not to remain silent.” Indeed, many Millennial women, whose first genuine feminist movement was #MeToo, became enthralled with the senator due to this zeal. Had a more conservative Gillibrand remained silent, she could not have erected a potent base in time for her bid.

Unfortunately for Gillibrand, this transition may not ultimately result in her triumph. Firstly, the sheer number of pledged Democrats infringes upon Gillibrand’s lane; the three other progressive women running for the nomination, Harris, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, may split the vote of white women.. Furthermore, Gillibrand must expand her base beyond its current extent, particularly with black voters and white, working class unionites, both of which constitute the backbone of the party. The first two statewide elections for the nomination, the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, may not exacerbate this flaw, but Gillibrand cannot even dream to compete in the South, and thus for a DNC victory, without major outreach. Even though Sanders ran closely with Clinton in whiter states, his decimation in the black-majority South engendered much of his demise. Simultaneously, Gillibrand can use the plethora of competitors to her advantage; as long as she can remain competitive early, she can pick off her retiring rivals’ voters, especially if they endorse her over a more alienating candidate. Foremost, though, Gillibrand must continue on her leftward trajectory. Any reversal to her previous attitudes would lead her base to dissipate more quickly than one can spell P-R-E-S-I-D-E-N-T.  

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