Why Gillibrand Could Outperform Expectations in New Hampshire

The senator from New York faces regional favorites but may have dark-horse potential in the first primary state.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand poses for a selfie during an event organized by the Young Democrats of New Hampshire at Stark Brewing Co. in Manchester, on Feb. 1.
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Feb. 14, 2019, 8 p.m.

The stars would have to align for any New Yorker to pull off a New Hampshire primary win over formidable rivals from New England.

But with multiple trips to the first-in-the-nation state in recent months, a closeness with its popular Democratic senators, and a stump speech that touts rural-state parallels, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is working to out-campaign regional favorites and plow past her opponents who are also preparing to barnstorm the state.

Gillibrand heads to New Hampshire Friday for a three-day swing, her second in the month since announcing her exploratory committee. She is positioning herself as something of a rural workhorse, a pragmatic Democrat who has trotted a similar path to Granite Staters’ own.

She’ll stop in Hanover, Keene, Dover, and Exeter over Presidents' Day weekend, aiming to pitch the candidate profile she previewed on her last trip: a working mom who can find common ground in red places; a “women-plus” progressive whose national agenda mirrors much of the state’s priorities; and an all-around antidote to President Trump, whom she unabashedly calls out by name.

As Gillibrand stumps free from great expectations, the stakes are high for the top contenders from neighboring states.

Members of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s team camped out in New Hampshire during the midterms, and history is on her side: Only one Democratic presidential candidate from her home state of Massachusetts has ever lost the first-in-the-nation primary. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has moved in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s direction since he swept the state in 2016, and the Vermont independent has already rallied hordes of supporters without yet entering the race.

Warren has made multiple trips to New Hampshire. Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar will participate in town halls there soon. Klobuchar’s will be a CNN televised production in Manchester, while Harris’s event will happen in Portsmouth, off-camera.

But Gillibrand has already been to both cities. And insiders noted she has started building relationships with top Democrats. That includes texting birthday messages to some of the most prominent female leaders and asking their opinions on wardrobe choices, for example.

This week, her campaign hired Pat Devney and Shannon McLeod as state and political directors. Devney previously served as a senior political adviser at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. McLeod was Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig’s finance director in 2017 and organized the New Hampshire Women's Foundation Women Run! program.

“There may well be a risk in running a women-plus campaign,” Gillibrand tweeted this week. “But it is who I am.”

In interviews, multiple insiders mentioned that the 52-year-old senator’s strategy aligns with the state’s history of elevating women.

“Traditionally in New Hampshire, all things being the same, women do have an edge in the Democratic primary,” said Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s longtime chairman. “It takes something unique to not have it occur.”

And it doesn’t hurt being close with her colleagues from New Hampshire: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, the first woman in the country to be elected both governor and senator, and Sen. Maggie Hassan, whom Gillibrand campaigned for in 2016. Some New Hampshire operatives equated Gillibrand’s retail-politics style to that of their own senators, as well as those of presidential candidates who found success in the primary.

“She does do extremely well on the retail level,” Buckley said. “As a veteran of the Jimmy Carter campaign, which was almost entirely retail, I can see the power in that.”

It also worked for Bill Clinton in 1992. “He made you feel like you were the only person in the room,” Buckley added. “And she was having that sort of experience with the folks she met with.”

Gillibrand recently traveled to Manchester, Nashua, Portsmouth, Concord, and Durham, and became the first presidential candidate to visit Littleton, a tiny area in the North Country, home to fewer than 6,000 people.

Amelia Keane, executive director of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, said her group has hosted more than a dozen potential 2020 candidates over the past year but Gillibrand was the first woman. After announcing her exploratory committee last month, Gillibrand attended an intimate dinner with Keane and a few other young Democrats.

“I was really impressed right off the bat because she sat down, opened up a notebook, and asked us about our organization,” Keane said, adding that she hasn’t encountered that with other contenders.

Earlier that night, Gillibrand spoke to nearly 200 activists at a local brewery in Manchester. After an initial email invitation went out, Keane recalled having 100 responses by the end of the week.

“That’s very atypical,” she said. “Usually for other candidates it was like pulling teeth just to get 20 people there.”

Periodically sipping a beer sourced from the venue, Gillibrand talked up a national progressive agenda: Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, and paid family leave, which is the state Senate’s top legislative priority this year. It was also Democratic governor nominee Molly Kelly’s core campaign issue against Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

Gillibrand received national attention as one of the only senators eyeing 2020 to campaign in New Hampshire for Kelly during the midterms, a move some said could give her a leg up with activists.

“Everyone remembers everything,” Keane said. “And they keep a running tally.”

Back in Manchester, Gillibrand also called out the president by name: “I’m so angry at what President Trump has done, putting the hate and the division into this country. It’s terrible. It’s not who we are as a nation.”

Still, she will have to outmaneuver others who may air similar grievances. A survey released by Saint Anselm College on Wednesday showed former Vice President Joe Biden with the highest favorable rating among Democratic primary voters in the state, at 80 percent, followed by Sanders, Harris, and Warren, who are all outspoken Trump critics.

But Sanders and Warren also had higher unfavorable marks than nearly all other candidates listed. Gillibrand is not as well-known, the survey indicated, but she has a favorable base to build on. Her team intends to do that though frequent personal interactions in small settings, a strategy that already appears to be working for some influential Democrats.

“I frankly can’t think of too many presidential candidates that, in between events, go sledding down a hill with the kids,” Buckley said, referencing a video clip that Gillibrand’s team promoted on social media showing her gliding down a snowy path.

“Having that comfort level to do something like that on the spur of the moment—that’s exactly how you connect to people in New Hampshire.”

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