On a recent December afternoon in a high-ceilinged loft in downtown Manhattan, dozens of dressed-to-the-nines people young and old milled around drinking Champagne and eating canapés while the Dartmouth Rockapellas performed “Build Me Up Buttercup” and other classics. A photographer ran around taking group shots. From the looks of it, it could have been a cocktail reception or art opening, but on the precipice of the year 2020 the cause was political rather than social: Raise some serious money to get Donald Trump out of office as quickly as humanly possible — and, perhaps even more urgently, help wrestle the Senate from Republican stranglehold on legislation.
For a political fundraiser, the crowd skewed young, which was partially due to the fact that the tickets started at only $50. “One of the initiatives they’re trying to push for is how to get young people involved when we can’t make the same kind of financial contributions as some older people can,” Laura Delany, a 22-year-old attendee who works as a management consultant, told Refinery29. A children’s corner was reserved for budding activists who spent the evening drawing protest posters with crayons.
The purpose of the fundraiser was to fête the relaunch of Off the Sidelines, the political action committee (PAC) created in 2011 by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (spotted singing along with the Rockapellas, who come from her alma mater) to mobilize women and girls to participate in politics and elect women candidates. Gillibrand dropped out of the 2020 presidential race in August, and has quickly decided to shift her focus to helping elect Democrats in crucial upcoming races. Having raised $7 million since its launch, the organization has set its sights on raising $1 million for 10 Senate and 10 House races in 2020 — the full list is still TBD. Three candidates were featured at the fundraiser, introduced with a rollicking speech by Gillibrand: Barbara Bollier, a former anesthesiologist running for Senate in Kansas; Tedra Cobb, running for the House seat in New York’s 21st District; and Rep. Cindy Axne, hoping to defend her seat in Iowa’s 3rd District.
In addition to liberating the White House of Trump, flipping the Senate — and ousting Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader — is of utmost importance to Democrats in 2020. This is because the Senate has become where transformative, ambitious House bills go to die under McConnell’s leadership. While McConnell blames the Democratic-majority House for only focusing on impeachment, they’ve actually been passing scores of important legislation, including a sweeping anti-corruption bill, a background checks bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ+ rights. All of them are currently sitting in limbo on the Kentucky senator’s desk. If the Democrats keep the House in 2020 (which they are poised to do), they want to actually get things done. And, if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, without a Democratic Senate many of her plans won’t become reality. Then again, if Trump is reelected, recapturing the Senate would give Democrats control over the budget and legislative agenda, as well as the ability to vote against far-right extremist judicial nominees.
Currently the Senate has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats. There are 35 seats to defend in 2020, of which 23 are Republican and 12 Democratic. This means Democrats need to gain three or four seats to take over. Gillibrand’s group aims to help in many of the key races, for both incumbents and challengers, by providing funding and the senator traveling the country for their campaigns. Key candidates include Amy McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot looking to win McConnell’s Kentucky seat; Sara Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s House looking to challenge the increasingly unpopular Susan Collins (and currently outraising her); and others in states like Iowa, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and North Carolina. While Off the Sidelines is focused on helping women, the group will also support male challengers where it makes sense.
Gillibrand, with her characteristically optimistic outlook, has thrown herself back into the work, and says she believes women can win big again after the sea change the 2018 midterm elections brought about.
"Off the Sidelines helped nearly 100 candidates last cycle, and 90 of the candidates that I helped for the House races actually won," the senator told Refinery29 in an interview before the fundraiser. "It really matters because women were brave, they ran in red and purple districts, and they ran on issues of their hearts, issues of their passion. Lucy McBath running on ending gun violence, Lauren Underwood running on 'healthcare is a right, not a privilege,' Stacey Abrams running on voting rights. These were really powerful campaigns, a significant-change election, and a referendum on Donald Trump. So it really harkens good things to come for 2020: If women stay as focused and angry as they are about the injustices and challenges we face, we will win the presidency and we will flip the Senate."
So far, according to Open Secrets, Off the Sidelines has donated to the House races of Ann Kuster (D-NH) and Marie Newman (D-IL), and the Senate races of Theresa Greenfield (D-IA) and Tina Smith (D-MN). The largest donation, $10,000, is to Smith, who replaced Sen. Al Franken in a 2018 special election after Gillibrand and other senators vocally called for his resignation. Gillibrand says she recently helped host a conference with the heads of the 17 Off the Sidelines giving circles — donor networks in major cities around the country, which have raised an additional $5 million over the years — where she got to hear many of the candidates’ stump speeches and coach them on campaigning. The conference included McGrath, Bollier, and MJ Hegar, who narrowly lost a House seat last year and is running a competitive Senate race in previously redder-than-red Texas.
Amy Nauiokas, the founder of a financial-services investment firm, who hosted the fundraiser at her apartment, said she first met Gillibrand at an early Off the Sidelines event, supported her for president, and was disappointed to see her drop out of the race — but is energized to see what she does next.
“A lot of people have been paying lip service to the fact that this is the year of women, the decade of women, but these guys have been doing the work for a long time and I don’t think they get enough credit for it,” Nauiokas told Refinery29. “I also think Kirsten as a candidate didn’t get enough credit for the work that she does behind the scenes. And Off the Sidelines is her behind-the-scenes effort. She works tirelessly on behalf of women, and seeing the energy in this room, the number of young people, is fantastic.”
Gillibrand started Off the Sidelines as a reaction to the 2010 election, which was the first in 30 years in which women’s representation in Congress actually dwindled. “I decided I wasn’t going to stop until we have 50% women in Congress, and now we only have about 25%,” she said. But after the mess of 2016, she’s worked on a few other ideas for making elections fairer, including legislation that would help increase access to the ballot and modernize the voter-registration system. She also says she’s open to restricting the currently limitless terms for both House and Senate members: “I like that kind of idea — so that you have time to develop seniority, but not so much so that the same people are here and it’s still mostly white and male.”
Gillibrand ran an at-first promising presidential campaign that never quite took off, whether it was because of the crowded field or the fact that some big donors snubbed her in retaliation for what they perceived as the wronging of Franken. But now she’s making lemonade out of lemons, eager to move forward and be as useful as she can be amid a national crisis and on the eve of a make-or-break election. Dropping out of the presidential race has given the senator the chance to re-engage with Off the Sidelines and do the work that she could not do while running a campaign, and that she’s passionate about.
As for who she plans to endorse in 2020, she says she is waiting as things are changing quickly in the race, but is hoping to announce this by the New York Democratic primary on April 28, 2020. One thing is clear: Her friend Sen. Kamala Harris recently leaving the race means there’s no longer one obvious choice. “I was very sad that Kamala ended her campaign. I was very inspired by her campaign, and I can’t imagine all the challenges she had to overcome as a strong Black female candidate. That made me really sad,” she said.
Yet she refuses to dwell on the specifics of the race, and prefers to talk in future-thinking terms. When asked about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent statement that she and Harris have been “forced out” of the race in favor of billionaires like Tom Steyer who have bought their way in, Gillibrand launched into the importance of publicly funded elections. “I think it displays the need to question why we let money dominate politics, and who can run, and how successful they’re going to be. When money can come from special interests or from billionaires, it lessens the strength of the voice of the people in this country.”