On a Thursday earlier this month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and the Republican seeking to unseat her, Chele Farley, both were on the campaign trail.
Farley, a former financier and New York State GOP fundraiser, was leafletting outside a grocery store in Cedarhurst. “I’m running for U.S. Senate,” she told shoppers, pressing cards bearing her image into their hands. Few stopped to engage her, though some said they were glad to hear that she is challenging Gillibrand.
Gillibrand was visiting a candy store in Concord, New Hampshire, stumping for the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, Molly Kelly. Gillibrand talked with Granite State residents about her bill to implement federal family and medical leave.
The senator was asked, as she regularly is, if she is laying the groundwork to run against President Donald Trump in 2020. “I’m focused on my own Senate race,” she responded, according to the Concord Monitor.
In a year when Gillibrand, 51, of Brunswick, is vying for her second full term as senator, there has been far less attention on her re-election bid than on her presidential prospects. After all, she has hefty advantages over Farley, 51, of Manhattan, in polling, fundraising and name recognition.
New York's junior senator has barely acknowledged her own race, using her clout in the last weeks before the Nov. 6 election to boost other Democratic candidates, particularly women, in more competitive campaigns around the country.
"I will serve my six-year term," Gillibrand pledged Thursday in Manhattan at her lone debate against Farley. The question was a nod to her apparent aspirations for higher office.
"I don't believe that," Farley countered. The Republican has built her challenge in large part on the argument that Gillibrand’s zeal for the national spotlight has left her constituents without a dedicated representative in Washington.
Gillibrand isn't running a traditional reelection campaign beyond the half-hour face-off and sitdowns with newspaper editorial boards, including Newsday's. She has done virtually no retail campaigning and run no TV ads.
Political strategists, both Democrat and Republican, say the approach isn’t unexpected.
Gillibrand had $20 million in campaign contributions and $10.7 million cash on hand compared to Farley’s $1.2 million with $152,000 cash on hand, as of Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
She led Farley by 25 percentage points among likely voters, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Oct. 18, in a state where the 6.2 million enrolled Democratic voters vastly outnumber the 2.8 million Republican ones.
Gillibrand, a former congresswoman appointed to the Senate in 2009 when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state in the Obama administration, bested her Republican opponents by very comfortable margins in her last two Senate races. She defeated Joe DioGuardi by 28 percentage points in the 2010 special election and Wendy Long by 46 percentage points in their 2012 race.
She has focused her attacks on Trump and the Republican Party at large rather than on Farley, who was a private equity firm partner and the state GOP's New York City finance chair.
Gillibrand's relatively untapped campaign war chest has fed speculation that she is saving for 2020, her recent travels have taken her to swing states crucial in presidential bids and her rhetoric revolves around the national Democratic Party's goals to recapture Congress and the White House.
“I believe we will win in both ’18 and ’20,” she said at an Oct. 5 town hall at Hofstra University in Hempstead. “Because I think American believes in a set of values that President Trump doesn’t believe in. We believe that we should care about one another.”
Farley, critical of career politicians, has pledged to serve just two terms if elected.
"Senator Gillibrand has had her 12 years," she said. "I want to be the senator who puts New York first."
But her voice hasn’t resonated, according to polling.
The Quinnipiac Poll showed that 66 percent of likely voters said they hadn’t heard enough about Farley to make a decision. “That’s a pretty big hurdle this far into the election,” Quinnipiac polling analyst Mary Snow said.
Farley said she remains optimistic. The Republican compared her campaign to that of Democratic activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-time candidate who toppled the U.S. House’s fourth-ranking Democrat, Rep. Joseph Crowley, in the June primary. Farley said Crowley lost because he neglected his district of Queens and the Bronx and took his office for granted.
“We are going to win this. I’m doing this full time,” said Farley, who has been on a break from financial services since Jan. 1 and put $250,000 of her own money toward her bid. “And I’m actually here in New York, doing everything I can.”
Gillibrand responded that she is in the state regularly. This election cycle, the senator has visited all 62 counties and, after a Friday event in Buffalo, hosted 17 town halls.
Gillibrand’s fundraising and stumping for such candidates as Kyrsten Sinema, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona, and Amy McGrath, a Democratic running for U.S. House in Kentucky, ultimately will benefit New Yorkers, Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin said.
“If you care about fighting for New Yorkers, you have to care about flipping the House and the Senate,” Caplin said.
Farley said her platform includes plans to directly help New Yorkers.
The federal government takes $48 billion more from state taxpayers than they get from Washington in return, and some of that revenue should be recouped, Farley said. The cap on state and local tax deductions could be increased if the state had a Republican and a negotiator at the table like her, Farley said. The most popular of her proposals is an itemized deduction on monthly rent for those filing federal tax returns, Farley said.
Gillibrand said her marquee legislative achievements include her successful advocacy for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy preventing gay members of the armed forces from serving openly and for passage of the STOCK Act making it illegal for elected officials to benefit from inside financial information. She also supported the Zadroga 9/11 health bill helping first responders and survivors and this past year, successfully pushed for components in bills to benefit New York State’s farming and manufacturing sectors, she said.
The senator has made a national name for herself as a defender of women, even before the #MeToo era.
Gillibrand has long fought sexual misconduct, whether on college campuses, in the military or in Congress. She criticized fellow Democrats, former Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and former President Bill Clinton on that front.
Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist with the party’s progressive wing, criticized Gillibrand for endorsing moderate male incumbents over their progressive female challengers during the primary season, including Crowley over Ocasio-Cortez and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over actor Cynthia Nixon, whom Katz advised. But Katz gave Gillibrand credit for supporting other women in the state, including Liuba Grechen Shirley, the Democrat challenging Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) on Long Island.
“She’s got a big following. It helps candidates when a senator with has much weight as she has gets behind their race,” Katz said.
“I don’t think Gillibrand has much to worry about when it comes to her election,” Katz said. “She’s got money, she’s got demographics on her side, she’s the incumbent, there’s no scandal.”
Republican strategist Susan Del Percio agreed that it would take much more money for a GOP challenger to make a splash against a Democratic incumbent in deep-blue New York, but she said Gillibrand – unlike the state’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer – has forgotten that all politics is local.
“It seems that Senator Gillibrand is simply interested in raising her 2020 profile, helping candidates around the country and has basically ignored the voters of New York,” Del Percio said.
Del Percio and others pointed to Gillibrand’s lack of 2018 campaign spending as an indicator that she is readying for a 2020 run.
"I'll see what I can use them for in the future," Gillibrand said after Thursday's debate, responding to a Newsday question about her plans for the saved funds. "But right now, I'm trying to run a very modern campaign focused on taking the issues directly to the voters."
Caplin, the Gillibrand spokesman, said her campaign will “keep evaluating the race and spend the resources we need to win.”
A Gillibrand adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said her campaign has prioritized outreach via social media over TV spots, but filmed an ad in case they find they need to air it before Nov. 6.
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
Democrat, 51, of Brunswick
Education: Dartmouth and UCLA School of Law
Family: Married with two sons
Did you know? Her grandmother, Polly Noonan, was an influential force in the Albany Democratic machine and close to Albany’s 40-year mayor, Erastus Corning.
Chele Chiavacci Farley
Republican, 51, of Manhattan
Education: Stanford, B.S. and M.S.
Family: Married with three sons
Did you know? Her husband, Richard Farley, is a registered Democrat. She said he encouraged her to run and will vote for her.