It's Kirsten Gillibrand's moment — if she can pull it off

It's Kirsten Gillibrand's moment — if she can pull it off
© Getty

New York Senator Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandEx-officials voice deep concerns over new Pentagon UFO unit Paid leave advocates ramping up the pressure on Manchin and Schumer Gillibrand, bipartisan lawmakers push to keep military justice overhaul in NDAA MORE (D) has many people talking — including the president of the United States. After Gillibrand called for Trump’s resignation in response to sexual harassment accusations leveled against him, the President replied via tweet:  

Many observers noted the sexual innuendo implied by Trump’s tweet. Gillibrand responded that she and millions of other women would not be deterred by “sexist smears” designed to silence them. The editorial board of USA Today joined the kerfuffle stating that “A president who'd all but call a senator a whore is unfit to clean toilets in Obama's presidential library or to shine George W. Bush's shoes.”

The bevvy of sexual harassment and assault claims against both political and celebrity heavyweights has put gender relations squarely into focus. Time Magazine’s pegging of the biggest leaders of the #MeToo movement as the “person of the year” highlights the breadth of the issue. Trump has not been the sole target of Gillibrand’s remarks. She also called out Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMaxwell accuser testifies the British socialite was present when Epstein abuse occurred Epstein pilot testifies Maxwell was 'number two' in operation Federal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill MORE, suggesting that he should have resigned in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and she was the first senator to call for Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' MORE’s (D-Minn.) resignation.  

A new energy among women and particularly among Democratic women appears to have been unleashed with the recent goings-on. Gillibrand’s leadership in taking on Trump and ousting Franken has heightened her position among the Democratic base. This has led many to conclude that she may be a viable candidate in 2020. Nate Silver recently tweeted: “She’s running.” Although she is getting a lot of attention now, signs of a “draft Gillibrand” campaign can be seen in the 2016 Electoral College.

I have been surveying members of the Electoral College in each of the past five elections. These individuals compose the heart of both parties. Members of the body include party chairs, activists, and big donors. What they think about the political landscape matters. After all, these are the individuals who are conducting campaigns at the state and local levels. They are presumably among the most informed, partisan, and energetic members of the electorate.

Shortly after the 2016 election, I surveyed the body and among the questions I asked them was who they would like to see at the top of their party’s ticket in 2020. Among Democratic electors, the clear choice was Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren calls on big banks to follow Capital One in ditching overdraft fees Crypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker won't seek reelection MORE (D-Mass.). After Warren, electors identified three more female senators — Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPolitics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash Symone Sanders to leave the White House at the end of the year Bidens to attend Kennedy Center Honors following Trumps' absence MORE (D-Calif.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharBiden should seek some ideological diversity House passes bipartisan bills to strengthen network security, cyber literacy Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas MORE (D-Minn.), and Gillibrand. Many indicated they would like to see diversity, youth, and vigor at the top of the ticket. While some electors showed a preference for Joe BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE or Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGOP ramps up attacks on SALT deduction provision Symone Sanders to leave the White House at the end of the year Briahna Joy Gray says Chris Cuomo will return to CNN following scandal MORE (I-Vt.), several noted their respective ages could be a detriment.  

Warren has been on the national stage for several years and there was speculation that she was going to run in 2016. While she is popular among progressives, she does come with baggage that could hurt her in the general election. Perhaps of most concern is the impression that she has played with the facts of her heritage. This would be off-putting to many moderates and “Never Trumpers.”

By contrast, Gillibrand has led a pretty quiet life in the Senate. During her time in the House, she was a member of the conservative Blue Dog coalition. She had won her House seat in a very conservative congressional district that had been in Republican hands for most of the last century. She had campaigned against granting amnesty for illegal immigrants and that she would work to protect the rights of gun owners. As a senator, she has softened her positions on both of these lightning rod issues. This “evolution” has invited claims of political opportunism.

Trump’s charge of her being a lightweight notwithstanding, she has become a reliable liberal voice in the Senate. She was a key player in overturning the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy and calling for marriage equality. Her bona fides regarding women’s issues (abortion, health care, child care, and equal pay for equal work) has been consistent throughout her political career. And it is probably not an accident that her aides indicated that she was pulled out of a bipartisan bible study group to hear the news of the president’s tweet.

Gillibrand checks many of the boxes Democrats are looking for in 2020. This is evidenced by the positive response among Democratic electors after the 2016 election. Her feud with Trump and her willingness to speak out against members of her own party has given her a significant voice on the national stage. Although Warren, Harris, Klobuchar, Biden, and Sanders and generated interest, this is Kirsten Gillibrand’s moment.

One author has claimed that Trump has given Gillibrand her “origin story.” It’s a story that fits the moment and serves as a clear counterbalance to politics in the age of Trump. Two thousand years ago, Publilius Syrus wrote that “a good opportunity is seldom presented, and is easily lost.” If Gillibrand has any aspirations for 2020, she should seek to make the most of this opportunity or it could be lost forever.

Robert Alexander is Professor of Political Science at Ohio Northern University and author of “Presidential Electors and the Electoral College: An Examination of Lobbying, Wavering Electors, and Campaigns for Faithless Votes.”