The ghost of Al Franken and the mystery of the Gillibrand campaign's failure to launch

She says voters have moved past her role in the Minnesota senator's political exit — but they still aren't buying in to her presidential pitch.
Image: Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand was the first senator to call on Al Franken to resign in 2017 after several women accused him of inappropriate behavior.Charlie Neibergall / AP

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By Lauren Egan

HANOVER, N.H. — Meg and Tavis Doucette couldn’t recall what happened to Al Franken.

“I have it somewhere in my memory. I sort of recall that,” Meg said, as she waited in a college bar on a Friday night in June to hear Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — whom many Democrats have held responsible for Franken's political exit.

“Yeah, that’s not even on my radar. I didn’t even really know to be honest,” her son, Tavis, added. “Now I feel bad. I have to go research that.”

Franken, the former senator from Minnesota, may not be on the Doucettes' minds as they weigh 2020 Democratic candidates. But some high-powered donors and party heavyweights, whose opinion tends to play an outsize role at this stage of the primary, have not moved past Franken's 2017 resignation. Gillibrand herself, at times, has seemingly been at pains to do so.

After Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly call for Franken to step down, setting off a wave of over two dozen other Democratic senators to also call for his resignation, many elite donors who had once supported her hesitated. Some said they viewed Gillibrand’s actions as opportunistic and self-serving, especially as the presidential election neared.

For months, the common explanation about why the high-profile senator from New York long seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party has failed to break through in the presidential primary has centered around this dynamic.

Many political insiders have viewed Gillibrand’s low fundraising and polling numbers — she hovers at a half percent in polling averages — as evidence of a backlash. Democratic voters and donors, the thinking goes, were upset after Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly pressure Franken to resign after multiple women accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Gillibrand’s campaign itself pointed to Franken to explain why she was raising significantly less as a presidential candidate than she did in her Senate re-election race last year. In a memo obtained by The New York Times, her campaign reportedly said that there was “no question” that Gillibrand’s first-quarter fundraising was negatively affect by those “who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.”

Still, in conversations with voters in early primary states, many say they aren’t thinking of Franken when it comes to making a decision on who to support in the primary.

“What was interesting about Gillibrand is she immediately wanted to talk about Al Franken and how she responded to that. For me, as much as that is important, it wasn’t what I was super interested in hearing about,” said Emily Van Kirk of Iowa, recalling an event featuring Gillibrand she attended at the beginning of the year.

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“I am a long way away from picking my candidate, and I will certainly be considering a handful of them, including Gillibrand. That’s why I’m here — so I can get more than just the soundbite,” George Sykes, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said at a coffee shop meet-and-greet with Gillibrand earlier this month, adding that he doesn't have an opinion about the Franken resignation. "I didn’t particularly pay attention to it.”

Gillibrand says she has backed away from her initial strategy of explaining her thought process on Franken, recognizing that most voters aren’t interested in hearing about him. His name hardly comes up anymore, she said recently.

“No, not really, to be honest,” Gillibrand said in a phone interview with NBC News just ahead of the first Democratic debate last week, when asked if she hears from voters about Franken. “It seems to be something that some elite Democrats, elite Democratic donors, care about. But no, when I am on the campaign trail people ask me about how to get access to health care, they ask me about how they can get better public schools or free college, or how we can get better job training.”

While Franken could help make sense of Gillibrand's low fundraising numbers from big-dollar donors who once supported her, it still does not fully capture why she has failed to garner more grassroots support and continues to lag behind candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has sworn off big donors all together.

The diagnosis for Gillibrand’s campaign headaches is more than just an Al Franken hangover. But many Democratic strategists and party leaders say they're left puzzled.

“I just really don’t know. I am kind of at a loss for words right now,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist, as she grappled to explain Gillibrand’s struggling candidacy. “I think her campaign is a little confused, too.”

Some party leaders say Gillibrand’s problems started back home in New York. As other Democratic presidential candidates locked down home state support, Gillibrand struggled to get endorsements from the New York delegation. Some even publicly questioned the viability of her candidacy.

“I think that there was some lack of institutional support early on that contributed to a narrative that her run might be more quixotic than others,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and the former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, adding that this dynamic “contributed to a low enthusiasm with her at the start.”

Others say that Gillibrand’s decision to brand herself as the feminist candidate in the race has fallen flat, especially in a Democratic primary where voters expect all candidates to speak to issues such as women’s reproductive health care and paid family leave.

“She had a very mom-centric launch, which isn't as effective when you are in a race against other moms that are talking about more than just that,” Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said in a phone interview with NBC News.

On the campaign trail, voters echo this sentiment.

“Women’s issues are very important to me,” said Cass Olsen, a New Hampshire retiree, after attending a meet-and-greet with Gillibrand. “But they can be — and they are being — addressed by men and other women as well. So I don’t know how it plays out with her. I am still unsure.”

And Gillibrand’s stump speech, which is centered around the importance of female representation in politics, has left some progressives with a sour taste in their mouths. Gillibrand, they say, has not always practiced what she preaches.

“She has really advanced the feminist causes throughout the country … but it’s troubling to see that she hasn’t gotten off the sidelines more for women in New York,” said Katz, who worked for Cynthia Nixon during her gubernatorial primary run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, pointing out that Gillibrand endorsed both Cuomo and then-Rep. Joe Crowley over their female Democratic challengers last year.

Her campaign pushes back on that idea, saying that donations surged in the weeks immediately following the release of her Reproductive Rights Agenda, and continued to surge after she called on Fox News for lying about abortion during a town hall, arguing that it helped her reach the required level of donors to make the debate stage.

Many voters and party leaders say that what's holding Gillibrand back is lack of exposure. She's had good moments — from launching her campaign outside of Trump Tower to being one of the first candidates to visit Georgia in the wake of the state's near-total abortion ban — but none have managed to stick with the public, the way Kamala Harris grabbed the spotlight when she shared the stage with Gillibrand at last week's Democratic debate.

“I don’t know how people get the name recognition,” said Karen Zurheide, 63, at a women's health care roundtable with Gillibrand. “A lot of people have gotten a breakout moment and she just has not had that.”

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, sounded a similar note.

"It’s a really big field and so there are a lot of people not making a dent in the polls,” he said. “It can feel like a vicious cycle: You’re not covered so you don’t move up in the polls, and you don’t move up in the polls so you aren’t covered.”