WASHINGTON — If 2012 was the year that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand proved her chops at fundraising and 2013 was for proving her legislative skill, the senator is hoping 2014 is the year she cements her role as a true power player in Democratic politics by bringing in a coalition of like-minded lawmakers to Washington.
The 47-year-old junior senator from New York is hoping to turn her political prominence into a full-blown political machine, pouring millions into House and Senate campaigns, gubernatorial races, and other efforts aimed at bringing more women to Congress.
"To me it's a call to action. It's asking women to participate in politics. To vote to become advocates on the issues they care about, to run for office [and] if they don't want to run for office to find women candidates they share values with that they can support," Gillibrand said of her political efforts in an interview with BuzzFeed on Tuesday.
In 2012, Gillibrand first made a splash on the political money stage, raising huge sums of money for female candidates in tough primary races like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and longshot reelects like Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Over the last 18 months, the New York Democrat has taken on the Pentagon, McCaskill, and the leadership of both parties in pushing for a massive reorganization of how the military handles sexual assault cases. Although the effort faced a big blow last week with a failed vote, Gillibrand transformed what some considered a quixotic policy fight into a closely contested, substantive fight that split the Senate along bipartisan lines.
And now it's time for midterm elections in a critical year for Senate Democrats.
So far in the 2014 election cycle, Gillibrand — who in 2012 raised and spent more than a million dollars for Democratic candidates largely through her extensive email list — is well on her way to exceeding her goal of doling out $2 million to Democrats.
Through her Off the Sidelines PAC, Gillibrand has raised and donated more than $320,000 this cycle for candidates across the country, ranging from House hopefuls like Nassau County, N.Y., District Attorney Kathleen Rice to Sen. Kay Hagan to Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.
Gillibrand's joint fundraising events in New York — a target-rich environment for fundraising — and other places has also netted $228,000 so far this year, and she's helped bring in $275,000 at events she's headlined, according to aides.
But it is Gillibrand's extensive email list that is the backbone of her fundraising efforts. Gillibrand uses the list to send direct fundraising pitches to Democratic voters across the country on behalf of her chosen candidates. So far this year it's resulted in $604,679 in donations going directly to candidates.
"It's very active, and people really respond," Gillibrand acknowledged, adding that she's had significant success in turning a national list into an asset for races in districts that may not get top-tier attention from the media.
"Nobody is going to have an opportunity to go to Hawaii to meet Tulsi Gabbard … [but] they love knowing about these candidates. So they'll send $10 dollars. They'll send $15 dollars. They'll stay engaged," she said.
All told, that puts Gillibrand just under $1.5 million more than seven months before Election Day.
Gillibrand's largesse doesn't just extend to women — according to an aide, she's maxed out her donations to most of her male colleagues facing serious reelection challenges in the Senate this year.
Additionally, Gillibrand has donated to a number of other male Senate candidates, including Rep. Bruce Raley in Iowa and Gary Peters in Michigan. Gillibrand has also maxed out to Sen. John Walsh — who was appointed to former Sen. Max Baucus' seat earlier this year — and last week sent a fundraising pitch to her email list for his campaign to permanently replace Baucus.
But for Gillibrand, who has made women's issues a central policy priority, bringing like-minded women to the House and Senate is a clear priority: Over the last two cycles she's helped 16 women Senate and 31 House candidates.
Gillibrand hasn't limited her efforts handing out cash, however.
Rice, who's running to succeed Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, said of Gillibrand, from helping her staff, up to fundraising and providing simple practical advice about the ins and outs of campaigning, there are "few people who have been tangibly more helpful to the campaign and to myself."
Gillibrand has also been willing to take risks on primary races and candidate recruitment.
So far she's inserted herself into a number of primaries as well, including backing Rice — a decision that was instrumental in pulling her into the election. "I'm not sure there was anyone who was made a stronger, more compelling pitch" than Gillibrand, Rice said in an interview.
Unlike some lawmakers who stay out of the primaries, Gillibrand has used her fundraising prowess consistently to help those she identifies with and has been aggressively recruiting women to run in the House and Senate.
"I will reach out to people I think might consider running who I think can win and urge them to run. Answer questions about what it's like to be a woman in Congress, answer questions about what it's like to be a mom in Congress … so far, we've had a really good track record," she said.
Her most notable success is Gabbard, who despite her underdog status Gillibrand backed early on in her primary race over her staff's objections.
"When I talked to Tulsi, I was so excited when I met her. Because I saw in her this passionate young woman … I saw a little bit of myself in her and I thought to myself, I have to help her the way that Hillary [Clinton] helped me. So I immediately said we were" despite misgivings of her staff, she said.
Gabbard ultimately became the lead sponsor of Gillibrand's military sexual assault bill in the House, and Democrats said she also helped lobby Senate members, using her military experience as a selling point.
"Hillary Clinton was one of my biggest and best supporters," Gillibrand said Tuesday. "She was really a mentor for me … she had extremely good advice. She just always encouraged me. During that conversation she said 'Kirsten, if you decide to run, we'll be there for you.' And she did. She did fundraisers for me. She did rallies. She asked Bill Clinton for her birthday present to her for him to come to my district and stump for me the day before Election Day, which he did. And it made a difference."
"So I just learned from her experience that when you encourage someone to run helping them really does make a difference," she continued.
That sort of loyalty stems at least in part from Gillibrand's aggressiveness in supporting candidates once she decides to back them.
"She has walked the walk and talked the talk in a place where talk is cheap," one lawmaker who Gillibrand supported in 2012 said. "To varying degrees there are women primarily active in the House or Senate … [but] I haven't seen anyone, quite frankly, who's as aggressive not only in fundraising but in how those dollars are used," this lawmaker said.
"There's a lot of people in politics who will say 'I'll do this or that when you get in the race' … [but] its hard to find people who actually back that up," Rice said bluntly.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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