SIOUX CITY, Iowa ― When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) walked into Sioux City Gifts on Friday afternoon, the store was virtually empty save for the dozen reporters who had tagged along to document her inaugural presidential campaign swing.
But after greeting the cashier, Gillibrand spied a lone patron ― visibly stunned to be surrounded by the media entourage ― and immediately introduced herself.
The customer, Diane Desy, 55, a local retail worker and avid Republican, told Gillibrand she was concerned about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and supported building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Gillibrand asked whether Desy would support comprehensive immigration reform combining, among other things, tougher border security with a pathway to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants already in the country.
Desy responded favorably and the two got to talking about veterans issues. By the time Gillibrand moved on to inspect the store’s photography studio, she had made a dent in Desy’s lifelong allegiance to the GOP.
Although the woman said she has never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate and is relatively satisfied with President Donald Trump, she told reporters she would at least give Gillibrand serious consideration.
“I’m very impressed with her,” Desy said. “I lean more conservative, but I’m not close-minded to other points of view.”
Gillibrand, a 52-year-old attorney and 10-year Senate member who announced her presidential run on Wednesday, couldn’t have found a better case study for her presidential pitch if she had invented one from scratch. And sure enough, she referenced Desy ― anonymously ― in virtually every subsequent speech she delivered on the stump in all-important Iowa ― from Boone to Des Moines.
While registered Republicans like Desy won’t decide who gets to take on Trump in the 2020 general election, a key part of Gillibrand’s pitch to her fellow Democrats is that she has a record of winning over more conservative voters in rural areas.
Over the course of a 36-hour tour of northwestern and central Iowa on Friday and Saturday, Gillibrand frequently mentioned how much the wintry, agriculture-heavy state reminded her of upstate New York ― the region where she grew up and with her husband raises their two sons.
“I kind of recognize you, because you are hearty and you are hardworking and you don’t give up. It’s a lot like upstate New York Democrats,” she told a capacity crowd of hundreds at the Peace Tree Brewing Co. outlet in Des Moines on Saturday night. “We don’t mind the cold, either.”
I kind of recognize you, because you are hearty and you are hardworking and you don’t give up. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Gillibrand began her political career by upsetting a GOP incumbent in a 2006 House race in a district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. She recalled to her Iowa listeners that one skeptical consultant claimed the district had “more cows than Democrats,” and she cited her win as evidence of her ability to prevail in hostile territory.
But in recounting that first foray into electoral politics, she also was careful to emphasize stances from that run that liberal voters would agree with: opposition to the Iraq War and support for what Gillibrand calls “Medicare for All” (though her plan might more accurately be described as a Medicare buy-in or public option).
The voters she wooed in that initial race “cared about a lot of the same things you might have cared about ― that rank-and-file Democrats cared about,” Gillibrand said.
She even managed to make the case that her subsequent Senate wins in New York, a solid blue state in presidential voting, had further honed her political skills. She noted that outside of New York City, the state largely consists of moderate “purple” and conservative “red” pockets.
Gillibrand easily won a 2010 special election for the seat, and in 2012 she won a full term with 72 percent of the vote ― which she told Iowa voters is the highest tally for any statewide candidate in New York history. (In her 2018 re-election win,she picked up 67 percent of the vote, losing many of the rural counties she carried in 2012.)
At her brewery appearance, Gillibrand appeared to hit her stride rhetorically, letting her sense of humor flow a little more freely than at her previous stops as she spoke against the backdrop of stacked beer barrels.
A joke she had made elsewhere got bigger laughs than before.
“I work with [Sen.] Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on ending sexual harassment in Congress. I can work with anybody,” she said, prompting hoots of laughter and then applause from the crowd.
Gillibrand has the challenge ― and perhaps the benefit ― of entering the presidential race with relatively little national name recognition. It’s a reality that she noted at the close of a well-attended question-and-answer session on Saturday at a coffee shop in Ames, thanking local Democrats for showing up even though she is “not a national name.”
It’s one reason why Gillibrand barely registered in a mid-December poll of Iowa Democrats about their preferred presidential candidates in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. (Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), both of whom are considering presidential bids, took first and second place, respectively.)
But it also gives her the chance to shape her brand with voters without having to undo any major preconceived notions about her.
And Gillibrand’s argument that her success in rural areas ― as well as in suburbs ― makes her uniquely equipped to take on Trump attempts to turn what may be her greatest liability into a selling point.
The more conservative stances she took on guns and immigration in the first stages of her political career have prompted scrutiny. In her first House race, she tried to outflank her Republican opponent from the right when it came to cracking down illegal immigration. She also earned an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association for her support of gun rights. (As recently as February 2009, she boasted of keeping two guns under her bed.)
In Iowa, Gillibrand parried queries about her past stances without getting flustered, chalking up her evolution to more progressive positions to insights she gained upon becoming a senator.
She is a workhorse in the Senate and that’s one thing I do appreciate. Jefferson Fink, Des Moines voter
Responding to a question from a Democratic activist in Sioux City on Friday about why the NRA once considered her an ally in the fight against greater gun regulation, she grew emotional describing how meeting the parents of a teenager in Brooklyn killed by gun violence helped change her mind about the need to toughen firearm laws. It’s part of what inspired her, she said, to back 2011 legislation cracking down on illegal gun trafficking.
“Since [meeting those parents] 10 years ago, I have been 100 percent trying to end gun violence. I proudly have an ‘F’ rating from the NRA,” she said.
The crowd responded with approving applause.
Bernie Scolaro, a Sioux City public school teacher, was the only Democrat over the course of the trip who told HuffPost that she associated Gillibrand with the successful effort to pressure former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D) to resign in December 2017. Gillibrand was the first senator to call for Franken to leave after he faced multiple accusations of unwanted groping and other sexual misconduct.
Franken was popular as an effective Senate voice against Trump, and some Democratic donors have expressed anger that Gillibrand fueled the effort to oust him from office. But she has vehemently defended her action, noting that Franken had been accused credibly by eight women of misconduct when she called on him to resign.
As Gillibrand spoke at a house party, Scolaro asked the senator about her role in the Franken matter and the criticism it has sparked. Gillibrand replied that she spoke out because she believed she could no longer speak credibly to her teenage son about how to treat women respectfully if she did not act on those same principles in the U.S. Senate.
Scolaro seemed persuaded by the answer. “She was genuine and [Gillibrand’s response] was from the heart,” the woman said afterward.
Gillibrand is the second Senate Democrat to announce presidential ambitions ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) jumped into the race on Dec. 31. Those two are not expected to be the last; Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Corey Booker of New Jersey, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are mulling candidacies. And as the party awaits the decisions by Biden and Sanders, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) jumped into the race earlier this month.
Unlike many in what will be a crowded field, Gillibrand doesn’t fit neatly into a particular ideological “lane.”
In lieu of Sanders-style references to Nordic nations, Gillibrand cites her faith in God and the “Golden Rule” when explaining her support for policies like paid family leave. On a key education issue, she tends to stress making the acquisition of professional skills more affordable, rather than eliminating tuition at public colleges (though she has co-sponsored a bill that would do the latter for families making less than $125,000 annually).
At the same time, Gillibrand is leaning into her opposition to the influence of money in politics, calling for public financing of political campaigns. Like Warren, she has sworn off money from corporate political action committees and support from super PACs.
What’s more, Gillibrand has gotten behind ambitious progressive policies and legislation in the last two years. She co-sponsored Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation in September 2017, and rolled out her own bill last May that aimed to put payday lenders out of business. In June, she came out in favor of abolishing ICE ― the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that has elicited notoriety for its aggressive raids against undocumented immigrants in the nation’s interior.
Still, Gillibrand appears to be betting that touting her electability is a way to distinguish herself among a likely raft of candidates whose populist bona fides are harder to assail.
That could be a potent formula for Democratic primary voters whose interest in finding a candidate with general-election viability ― who first and foremost can beat Trump ― seems only to have intensified since he took office.
“She is a workhorse in the Senate and that’s one thing I do appreciate,” said Jefferson Fink, 28, who works at Kitchen Collage in downtown Des Moines. (Gillibrand stopped at the cooking specialty store on Saturday afternoon to bake cookies and discuss her family’s culinary habits.)
Fink supported Sanders in Iowa’s 2016 caucuses and he said he would be fine with him entering the race again. This time around though, Fink said he does not yet have a favorite.
“The more voices the better,” he said. “But at a certain point, we have to look at who might be able to defeat Trump.”