This November, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is running for her first full six-year term in the Senate. It's been nearly four years since she was tapped to fill Hillary Clinton's seat. She’s still building name recognition in New York, but her ambitions extend way beyond the state’s borders.
That was evident recently at Buffalo Night, a happy hour reception in Washington held in a Senate office building. As New Yorkers and former New Yorkers noshed on wings, Sen. Chuck Schumer whipped up the crowd.
“All right everybody, let's hear it for western New York!” Schumer bellowed into the microphone at the front of the room. “I hope everyone has a western New York brew. Bass, Genesee, Canadian, Molson!”
By the time Sen. Gillibrand arrived, Sen. Schumer had already left out a back door. She played a little catch-up by lingering to mingle with the audience. As she moved through the crowd, it looked like some people didn't immediately recognize her.
Even among this crowd who chose to happy hour in a Senate office building, her record was not well-known.
“Umm, I know I've read some, but it honestly doesn't come to mind right now.” Chris Zampongna, a DC lawyer from Buffalo, couldn’t say for sure what Gillibrand's done during her years in the Senate. “Schumer is what comes to mind.”
“Gillibrand has her own style, but I think it's a little bit hard when you have kind of an outsize senior senator,” added Max Smith, a lawyer who grew up Syracuse.
Almost a third of likely New York voters said last month they didn't know enough to have an opinion of Gillibrand.
But Gillibrand did have some superfans in the crowd. They included New York Congresswoman Kathy Hochul. She has directly benefitted from Gillibrand's major effort of late: to cultivate and support women's involvement in politics.
“Her help was indispensable to me,” Hochul said. She won a special election last year in a traditionally Republican district outside Buffalo. “She really was a mentor to me. It’s funny because she’s younger for me, but she’d already found her way through the ropes.”
Part of those “ropes” was how to bring in money sufficient to run a winning campaign, and Hochul said Gillibrand was instrumental by making key introductions to her donor network in western New York. Gillibrand’s helping again in Hochul's reelection race, sending fundraising emails to her list of supporters.
“When she sends an email on my behalf saying she supports me, that means a lot to many, many supporters,” Hochul said.
Hochul’s not the only candidate getting this kind of help. Gillibrand has been a patron to women candidates across the country, as part of her broader strategy to engage women voters.
Sen. Gillibrand sends out a lot of fundraising emails, at a clip that easily rivals Obama and Romney. Before she was ever a candidate, Gillibrand was a Democratic fundraiser in Manhattan, and it shows. This year, she's one of the top five fundraisers in Senate races, but all the other top candidates had close contests.
Gillibrand is leading her Republican challenger Wendy Long nearly two to one in poll, and has more than $10 million dollars in cash.
Even in the final weeks of her reelection bid, Gillibrand continues to send email to raise money for other campaigns. Her office said these appeals have brought in more than half a million dollars this cycle for women candidates – Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and New York’s Grace Meng, Nita Lowey, and Louise Slaughter among them.
She’s also hosting a New York City fundraiser on Monday for four Democratic Senate candidates: Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin, Shelley Berkley from Nevada, Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii. She did a similar event last summer for House candidates Christie Vilsack of Iowa, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Val Demings of Florida.
Targeting 'All of America's Women'
At the same time, Gillibrand is laying the groundwork to reach and activate women outside conventional political channels. She launched a fundraising website called Off the Sidelines last year. A video there lays out her vision, and has the feel of a church revival.
“I am still only one of 17 Senators in the US Senate who are women,” Gillibrand declares after a montage of women declaring their dissatisfaction with the current politics. “The women’s movement in this country is stalled.”
It’s here where the scope of Gillibrand’s ambitions come into relief, and she's very open that she sees her role as much bigger than representing New Yorkers.
“I want to ask all of America's women to be heard on the issues they care about,” she said in an interview at the U.S. Capitol, in which she repeatedly mentioned her national aims.
“I have grassroots activists all over the state, all over the country who want to support me,” she said, to explain why she’s raising money for other candidates.
It came up again, when she explained why she frequently talks about raising two kids as a senator. “If my goal is to engage women nationwide to be heard, they want to know about how do I balance work life and family,” she said.
Sen. Gillibrand has logged some high-profile legislative wins including an end to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, health benefits for 9/11 first responders, and a ban on insider trading in Congress. But this has been her most prominent pitch lately, and she’s using it to reach new audiences, including on The Daily Show during the Democratic convention.
“You know, this is what i often say, if we had 51 percent of women in Congress do you think we'd be debating birth control?” she said, prompting wild cheers from the audience.
Gillibrand also appeared this spring on a celebrity interview show on the women’s cable network Lifetime, alongside celebrities Alicia Keyes, Eva Longoria, Gillibrand, and Kelly Preston.
"Quietly at 9pm, I say, Mr. Chairman, I really need to go home now,” Gillibrand said, retelling the story of being very pregnant during a committee meeting. “And so I leave and that night my water broke!”
“Lucky it didn't a few hours earlier!” the host responded.
“Thank God!” Gillibrand laughed. “That would've made my colleagues apoplectic.”
She insists that all this groundwork is aimed at forcing Congress to give higher priority to addressing issues women care about.
Gillibrand also visited the Iowa delegation at the Democratic convention, which stirred some speculation about her ambitions.
But four years from now, Gillibrand said she hopes her predecessor in the Senate chooses to run for president.
“I hope to be chair of the Hillary 2016 fan club,” she said.