Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign

Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign
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Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet 'Game of Thrones' scores record-breaking 32 Emmy nominations The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet MORE (D-N.Y.) is seizing on the intense debate over abortion as she looks to revive a lagging campaign by doubling down on the women’s rights issues that have defined her political career.

Gilibrand was among the first of the 2020 candidates to propose codifying Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case establishing abortion rights, after Alabama passed a law prohibiting nearly all abortions.

Her push on abortion brought some renewed attention to a career built around women’s rights issues, including her efforts as senator to tackle sexual harassment in the military, and also more controversially, her calls for the resignation of former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenAl Franken: It's time to start taking Trump 'literally' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Mexican officials scramble to avoid Trump tariffs The Hill's Morning Report - Tariff battle looms as Trump jabs 'foolish' Senate GOP MORE (D-Minn.) over allegations of sexual misconduct.

But strategists remain skeptical about whether Gillibrand can revive a campaign that has failed to make much of an impact, with the senator in danger of missing out on the Democratic debates due to start next month after so far failing to meet the requirement of 65,000 unique donors, even as she has met the polling criteria.


Political strategist Jon Reinish, a former aide to Gillibrand, said that she is “uniquely positioned for this moment” based on her record on women’s rights issues.

“In the way that income inequality has been the constant thread through Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE’s career in and out of elected office, fighting for women tooth-and-nail is that for Kirsten,” he said.

Gillibrand was early among 2020 Democratic contenders in seizing on the recent wave of state legislation restricting access to abortion.

After Georgia passed a bill banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually happens six weeks into a pregnancy, the New Yorker sat down with abortion rights advocates at the Georgia Statehouse.

She denounced the legislation as “a nationwide assault on women’s constitutional rights by ideological extremists,” and proposed to enshrine abortion rights in federal law to supersede any state challenges.

The sit-down came one day after Alabama's governor signed a bill to ban almost all abortions, including in instances of rape and incest. The measure is the country’s most restrictive.

“Kirsten is fighting this fight against these Republican abortion bans because it’s the right thing to do and because she believes that this is about women’s fundamental civil rights and human rights,” campaign communications director Meredith Kelly told The Hill.

After her call to codify Roe v. Wade, candidates including Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Schumer throws support behind bill to study reparations MORE (D-N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Sanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE all issued similar proposals.

The New York senator also pledged to only nominate Supreme Court Justices who support Roe v. Wade, a promise that has also been adopted by other 2020 contenders, including Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries The hidden connection between immigration and health care: Our long-term care crisis Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE (I-Vt.).

Kelly said she thinks Gillibrand has “moved the needle” on the issue.

“That’s exactly what Kirsten would want,” she said. “We don’t know who the nominee will be, but the more people that are talking about these things and following her lead on these types of issues is good for America and good for America’s women.”

Gillibrand’s calls marked a rare instance so far this campaign where the senator captured the spotlight and led on a policy issue.

Since announcing a presidential run in January in CBS’s “The Late Show with Stephen ColbertStephen Tyrone ColbertChris Christie on Chuck Todd: 'The most pretentious know-it-all on network news' Ocasio-Cortez pokes Democrats for 'humorous' use of Spanish in debate Crowd breaks into chants of 'AOC' during Colbert appearance MORE,” the New York senator’s campaign has failed to gain traction.

A survey from Monmouth University Polling Institute published Thursday found that of all the candidates with more two-thirds name recognition among Democratic voters, Gillibrand had the second-lowest favorability rating.

She also raised just under $3 million in the first quarter, the smallest haul of any sitting senator who had already entered the 2020 presidential race.

And although she has met the polling criteria of at least 1 percent support in at least three polls recognized by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), she has yet to meet a second criteria of 65,000 unique donors.

The DNC has said it will prioritize those who meet both thresholds if more than 20 contenders qualify for the debates. Currently, 24 candidates have announced their intention to run.

Kelly said the campaign this month has increased its count of donors, but declined to say specifically how many additional donors the campaign needs to meet debate qualifications. 

Gillibrand’s candidacy has been hampered by her previous stance on key issues for the Democratic electorate like gun rights and immigration, back from when she represented a more conservative district in Albany, N.Y., as a House member — positions that had put her at odds with a party moving leftward.

Gillibrand has become more progressive since joining the Senate after being plucked by then-Gov. David Paterson to replace Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump thanks 'vicious young Socialist Congresswomen' for his poll numbers Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE, who joined the Obama administration as Secretary of State.

The New York senator also sparked ill will among certain segments of the Democratic Party after leading calls for the resignation of Franken following allegations of sexual misconduct.

The lack of traction has failed to bring attention to a career built on women’s rights and family issues. For example, she eschews the traditional red, white and blue campaign color scheme, opting instead for pink and black for her presidential campaign.

Her interest in women's rights issues was clear before her presidential run. 

Even before the "Me Too" movement became popular, Gillibrand was taking on sexual assault in the military. In 2013, she first introduced a bill that would have left it up to military lawyers, rather than commanders, to determine whether to prosecute sexual assault allegations in the armed forces.


She has also helped other Democratic women raise money to run for office.

And since outlining her reproductive rights platform, she has introduced a “Family Bill of Rights,” an expansive plan that aims to tackle various issues such as high maternal mortality rates, paid family leave for parents and more affordable early childhood education.   

But Gillibrand’s campaign has still failed to garner the same amount of headlines as other women 2020 candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris tops Biden in California 2020 poll The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE (Calif.), both of whom have also worked on women’s issues.

For example, Warren and Harris, along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have led on bringing attention to the high black maternal mortality rates and racial disparities in maternal health care.

“Just having a policy area or policy issue isn’t enough in-and-of itself, because there are a lot of good candidates that have a lot of good policy proposals, but it gives you a good foundation to build off of,” said Democratic strategist Eddie Vale.

Strategists remain doubtful whether Gillibrand can capitalize on abortion to catapult herself into the top tier of contenders.

Basil Smikle Jr., a Democratic strategist who has served as the New York State Democratic Party’s executive director, said he thinks this moment could help Gillibrand with fundraising and poll numbers, but does not think it will be enough by itself.

“Because of the sheer number of people that are in the race, the fact that you have other women in the race addressing this issue just as forcefully as she is, I think that mutes it to some extent,” he said.

But like other 2020 Democratic contenders who have failed to stand out, strategists say Gillibrand will have an opportunity to grab the spotlight at the upcoming debates — should she make the stage.

“The debates will be an opportunity for Kirsten to shine,” said Kelly, the campaign's communications director. “She has been in Congress and the Senate for over 12 years and has really incredible policy expertise across all sorts of fields and topics.”

“I anticipate that she will be a really strong voice for women and families and people will be excited about what they hear in June,” she added.