Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) tried to be the women’s rights candidate for the Me Too era. But the only Me Too issue anyone wanted to talk about involved just one man: the former senator from Minnesota, Al Franken.
On Wednesday evening, after missing the cutoff to qualify for the September Democratic debate, Gillibrand dropped her bid for the Democratic nomination.
Famously, Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Franken’s resignation in December 2017. The popular Democrat was facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct at the height of the Me Too era.
She’s been fielding Franken questions ever since.
Consider, just last week, Gillibrand held a town hall on reproductive rights in Missouri, a battleground for abortion rights. No national media covered the event. Two days later, however, the New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” devoted an entire segment to Gillibrand ― nearly 30 minutes centered entirely on what transpired with Franken and whether she had any regrets about it.
She was asked about Franken in national interviews at least 24 times this year, according to a campaign aide.
Gillibrand’s campaign failed for a host of reasons ― the field was crowded and competitive and she just didn’t have the big breakout moments of some of her rivals. Nor did she come into the race with national name recognition.
But it’s worth looking at Gillibrand’s exit through the lens of the platform she tried to run on ― women’s rights and gender equality. Her campaign was something of a referendum on the Me Too era, and a test of the limits of what a female candidate is allowed to be in 2020.
A Powerful Woman Still Sparks Anxiety
It’s hard not to look at what happened with Gillibrand and see that there’s still a lot of anxiety around the idea of a truly powerful woman ― especially one who is willing to stand up to a powerful man.
“We’re treading on a lot of deeply entrenched misogyny right now,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL ProChoice America. “Women who stick their necks out to challenge the entrenched systems that benefit men are rarely rewarded for it personally.”
Hogue emphatically disagreed that Gillibrand’s campaign was any kind of barometer for women’s rights more broadly. In fact, she sees 2020 as a crucial moment for women.
“The election will be studied as one that was completely pivotal for the conversation about women’s status in American society. There’s no question,” she said. “That’s not just because we have five women running. It’s everything that came before it.”
Hogue listed the emergence of Me Too, the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, the assault on reproductive rights, for starters.
Gillibrand didn’t break through for many of the same reasons most of these Democratic contenders aren’t polling well, Hogue said. In a large field, candidates without a national brand are struggling. Gillibrand is a “retail politician” who built power locally and was at a disadvantage.
Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist, put it bluntly. “She wasn’t the best candidate,” she said.
For voters who care about electing a woman, there are plenty of options right now. “With a field of this many women, I think it was hard for Gillibrand to talk about coming from off the sidelines when so many women were off the sidelines already,” said Katz, referring to the name of the New York senator’s dormant political committee, devoted to electing women.
On Wednesday, Gillibrand said she’d revive the group. “We have to defeat President Trump, flip the Senate and elect women up and down the ballot,” she said.
The Odds Were Low From The Get-Go
Even without Franken hovering over her campaign, Gillibrand likely didn’t have a shot.
“When you look at the front-runners, when you look at their records, even absent calling for Franken’s resignation, it’s hard to see how she’d make it into the top tier,” said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
The Franken incident, if anything, kept Gillibrand in the conversation, Lawless added. The media was always going to be fascinated by what happened. A powerful woman taking down a powerful man is irresistibly interesting news.
“If it’s a powerful man taking down a powerful man, then it’s like, ‘Eh, it’s a Monday,’” she said.
Nearly two years ago, not long after The New York Times published its Harvey Weinstein expose, coming out against Franken looked like a winning political move.
Republicans were the party of sexual assault, with Donald Trump at the helm. Roy Moore, accused of preying on young girls, was running for one of Alabama’s Senate seats. To distinguish the party, the Democrats had to go after Franken. Nearly three dozen Democratic senators joined Gillibrand’s call for his resignation.
Since then, Me Too has faded somewhat from the political conversation.
“The problem is it’s two years later and the political environment has changed. I think the discussion around Me Too and sexual harassment has changed as well,” said Lawless.
Of course, there was an obsession over the “fall” of Franken ― who, it’s worth emphasizing, voluntarily resigned.
“It’s hard to talk about because it’s really uncomfortable, but American people low-key don’t like women,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive nonprofit.
McElwee says the Franken incident was just one small reason for the New York senator’s failure to launch. If voters did hear about it, their reaction was more of fatigue, he said. “It’s a ‘women are still whining about this stuff’ reaction from voters.”
Where Is Me Too In The 2020 Race?
The 2020 race so far has been about a lot of issues: Trump, health care, the economy, climate change, even busing ― a political issue from the 1970s ― got its moment in the sun.
Me Too? Not so much.
Sexual discrimination, harassment and assault haven’t come up in the Democratic debates. (There was a single question about the pay gap in the first debate.)
While there’s little question the 2020 contenders are supporters of women’s rights (Joe Biden’s hair sniffing aside) there’s been little substantive discussion over what that support looks like.
What policy would best serve to ensure women are treated equally in the workplace?
What should the consequences be for sexual harassers?
What’s the best policy to ensure that the workplace is free from discrimination?
There’s been no back-and-forth on these issues.
“Democrats made themselves the standard bearers on #MeToo issues — practically shoving Al Franken out of the Senate — but you wouldn’t know it from the way their campaign to defeat Trump has played out so far,” Alexi McCammond wrote last week in Axios.
That’s actually not surprising. The Me Too era has triggered all kinds of anxiety about women taking on powerful men. A majority of men now say they’re reluctant to even mentor or work with women, according to a recent survey.
Arguably, at this point, there’s been more ink spilled over how men’s lives have been “ruined” by Me Too than discussion over the consequences women face when they speak up for themselves.
A Crowded Field
In a field with several other female candidates, Gillibrand’s pitch was even less likely to land. The 52-year-old senator initially centered her campaign on her identity as a mother.
“I’m going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” she said on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in January, announcing she was forming a presidential exploratory committee.
But she was outflanked on the mom strategy pretty quickly by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who drew a lot of attention the following month with a sweeping plan for child care. Warren expertly connected her policy to her experience as a young mother, recalling how her Aunt Bee swooped in at the last minute and offered to help her, Katz said.
In March, with the official launch of her campaign, Gillibrand pivoted away from the mom strategy and leaned in to a new slogan: “Be Brave.” The announcement was overshadowed by the release of the Mueller report. And the moniker also had the effect of calling up the Franken moment again.
In the end, there was little oxygen ― or appetite ― left for her to have a substantive conversation about sexual harassment or discrimination.
“Really owning sexual assault and harassment should’ve been a positive, distinguishing factor [for Gillibrand],” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy group. “We didn’t even get there because we were so busy talking about the process that led to Al Franken resigning.”
Yes, there is much to be excited about for women in politics. Women have brought new energy to the Democratic Party ― there was the Women’s March, the wave of congresswomen elected in 2018. Now, one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination is Warren. Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) will be on the debate stage in September.
Reproductive rights are on the agenda in a real and specific way, partly because Gillibrand took a hard-line stance on abortion early on.
“She successfully pushed the entire field to commit to defending the civil rights of women,” Meredith Kelly, Gillibrand’s communications director, told HuffPost.
Gillibrand on Wednesday said she’d ultimately endorse a Democratic candidate for president and stopped just short of telling The New York Times that candidate would be a woman.
“I think that women have a unique ability to bring people together and heal this country,” she said. “I think a woman nominee would be inspiring and exciting.”