Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whose presidential campaign thinks it may have finally found its breakthrough moment in her Fox News town hall, is still denouncing the network for creating a climate of fear around abortion rights while tying her approach on Sunday night into the broader purpose of her campaign.
“I wanted to make this point clear that this issue about women’s reproductive freedom has been deeply distorted by commentators on Fox News that are trying to create this myth that decisions about reproductive care and the rights of a woman to decide when she’s having kids and how many she’s having, and under what circumstances she’s having them, is somehow an issue about infanticide. Because it’s not. [Infanticide is] illegal, it’s a red herring, and it’s just not true. So I want to talk about truth and I want to speak truth to power and I believe that Fox News has to be responsible for truth and fact,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“We all have a responsibility to tell the truth and fight against fear, hate, and division that’s really pervaded across America under President Trump.”
Democrats are in the middle of a debate over how to handle Fox News and its viewers. Three other candidates in the race — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — participated in town halls on the network before Gillibrand. The Democratic National Committee barred Fox News from hosting a televised primary debate, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren took a “hard pass” on a town hall invitation, lambasting the network in a written statement as a “hate-for-profit racket that gives a megaphone to racists and conspiracists.” Warren added that she viewed Fox News as being “designed to turn us against each other, risking life and death consequences, to provide cover for the corruption that’s rotting our government and hollowing out our middle class.”
But the theater of Gillibrand’s choice to “politely” critique the network on its own air was a glimpse at the central narratives of her candidacy: That she is a crusader who confronts fights that others shy away from, and she is a consensus-builder, first elected to Congress in a 2-to-1 Republican district. In order to be effective, she told BuzzFeed News after the town hall, “I had to work with everybody.”
Gillibrand’s exchange about abortion with a Dubuque, Iowa, woman during Sunday night’s town hall, and the ensuing response from Fox News host Chris Wallace, led abruptly to a moment that has since drawn national headlines and gone viral on social media. After asking Gillibrand about her position on “late-term abortion” and “last-trimester abortions” Gillibrand thanked the voter and reframed the issue as one of “women’s reproductive freedom,” ripping the network’s role in pushing the “false narrative” of infanticide. She said “a woman should be able to decide when she’s having children, how many children she’s having, and under what circumstances she’s having them.”
Wallace said he was “not sure it’s frankly very polite” for Gillibrand to condemn the network “when we’ve invited you to be here,” but Gillibrand continued. “The debate about whether or not women should have reproductive freedom has turned into a red herring debate. What happens on Fox News is relevant because they talked about infanticide for six and a half hours...right before President Trump’s State of the Union.”
Gillibrand’s campaign is now selling “not very polite” tote bags, and her official Twitter bio now includes the note: “Not ‘very polite.’” It’s the kind of late push the senator may still need to qualify among the 20 candidates who will be eligible for the first Democratic debates later this month.
“Now I think getting people’s attention is the first step, and when she has them it would behoove her to move forward with substantive policy and ideas which just aren’t getting that much attention right now,” Christina Greer, a political analyst and professor of political science at Fordham University, told BuzzFeed News.
Gillibrand, though, has for months tried to connect with voters by listening to them, including people who may disagree with her. She likes to walk freely in the places she visits, popping into coffee shops, small boutiques, and bars where she gets and sometimes asks for unvarnished thoughts on the policy. In Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this year, she approached a woman who warned her she might not want to have this conversation because she was a registered Republican. Gillibrand demurred, and listened to the woman say she was concerned about “illegals” and criminals crossing the border illegally. Gillibrand responded, tying her work in the Senate to a policy analysis that tied national security and border protection to an immigration overhaul emphasizing fair play. When she said that sounded good, Gillibrand told her, “it sounds like you support comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship,” and the woman replied, “I guess I do!”
Gillibrand told BuzzFeed News on Monday she wants to be the kind of candidate people trust to rectify the fear of voters who have supported Trump and bought into Fox News sound bites. Gillibrand said she remembered thinking about the Sioux City woman’s fear, “That’s exactly what President Trump wants. He wants this woman to be afraid.”
Gillibrand added the woman was an example of someone who “has been made to be afraid by our president and by commentators who want to sow fear and anxiety and division” in a way that is “harming” the nation’s character and its moral conscience.
“And I need to strengthen her,” Gillibrand continued. “I need her to know the truth. I need her to know she doesn’t need to fear her neighbor and that she can actually be welcoming and show how strong this country is, that we can help refugees and we don’t have to fear them.”
Gillibrand told the story of a second woman in New Hampshire who told her she’d vote for her in the Granite State’s primary if she vowed to “protect the lives of the unborn.” Gillibrand said she explained that, as Christians, their values demanded compassion and respect of free will, and as Americans, they shared the idea of allegiance to the belief in the separation of church and state. “She said, ‘Oh! Well that makes sense!’” Gillibrand recalled.
Gillibrand said she wasn’t caught off guard by Wallace’s reaction to her challenge. (“I felt that Chris didn’t want me to say anything negative about his network,” she said.) But she said the exchanges where she attempts to close the trust deficit are “very much so” making her a better candidate.
Gillibrand would not say whether she believed Democrats are hurting themselves or the party by avoiding places like Fox News. Instead, she said people involved in the race “have a responsibility to tell the truth.”
“We can lift up our base, the people who want desperately to be heard in this election, but we can also reach across the aisle and find red and purple voters who desperately want to be heard too” she said. “There’s no reason why you can’t do both at the same time.”
“I believe that we can do both.”
Gillibrand spoke to a woman in Sioux City, Iowa. An earlier version of this post misstated the city.