Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took on Fox News on the network’s own airwaves Sunday night — a potential starring moment for the New York Democrat, who has struggled to break out of the sprawling Democratic presidential primary field.
In an hour-long town hall in Dubuque, Iowa, she parried questions on President Donald Trump’s border wall, her conservative House record and the trade war with China. She even attacked the network itself for what Gillibrand called its spreading of a “false narrative” on abortion rights.
Story Continued Below
But Gillibrand’s biggest moment — and a potential viral clip — came during an exchange with Fox News’ host Chris Wallace, who asked Gillibrand to explain her tweet from December 2018, when she said the future was “female” and “intersectional.”
“We want women to have a seat at the table,” Gillibrand said. At that, Wallace jumped in and asked: “What about men?”
“They’re already there — do you not know?” Gillibrand said, greeted by one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night. “It’s not meant to be exclusionary, it’s meant to be inclusionary,” she said.
“All right, we’re not threatened,” Wallace responded.
Less than an hour after the town hall ended, Gillibrand’s campaign Twitter account posted a 10-second video of the exchange.
The moment offered the potential for a much-needed burst of attention for Gillibrand. Nearly five months into her presidential bid, Gillibrand has failed to break out of lower tier of the 23-candidate Democratic 2020 field. She’s averaging less than 1 percent in national polling, and she hasn’t crossed the 65,000-donor threshold set by the Democratic National Committee as one of two criteria to qualify to appear on the debate stages in June and July.
During her town hall, Gillibrand made an explicit plea to voters to support her bid by donating to get her on the debate stage. But she didn’t criticize the DNC for its rules, which she has said aren’t a “measure of success.” Instead, she said the DNC’s done a “fine job” and she will “play by the rules they set.”
One of the most heated moments came when Gillibrand turned her fire on Fox News itself. On a question about late-term abortions, Gillibrand attacked Fox News for what she called the “role” the network “plays” in the “false narrative” around abortion rights.
But Wallace cut in mid-answer: “I understand, maybe, to make your credentials with the Democrats who are not appearing on Fox News, you want to attack us, I’m not sure it’s frankly very polite when we’ve invited you to be here,” Wallace said.
Gillibrand responded by saying she’d do it politely.
“The debate about whether or not women should have reproductive freedom has turned into a red herring debate,” Gillibrand continued. “What happens on Fox News is relevant because they talked about infanticide for six and a half hours — six and a half hours — right before President Trump’s State of the Union.”
“That is not the debate of what access to reproductive care is in this country,” she added.
Appearing on Fox News at all turned into its own test for Democratic presidential candidates this year. Four candidates — the others are Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — held town halls on the network, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted the network as a “hate-for-profit racket.” California Sen. Kamala Harris also declined to appear for a town hall.
Gillibrand’s campaign released a video ahead of her own appearance on Sunday night, opening with the line: “Kirsten Gillibrand has never been afraid to go into the ‘lion’s den,’” followed by clips of the New York senator formally launching her bid outside the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan in March.
When asked about winning over Americans who voted for both Trump and President Barack Obama — a constituency who may watch Fox News, according to Gillibrand — the New York Democrat promised to “show up, listen, hear what’s on people’s minds and then fight for them,” she said.
But Gillibrand’s most explicit pitch went to female voters, who she’s put at the center of her campaign: “I am the leading presidential candidate on women’s rights today,” she said.
In the last month, Gillibrand rolled out a slate of policies around reproductive rights and women’s health, including a national paid family leave program and universal pre-kindergarten. She waded into a congressional Democratic primary, endorsing the challenger to an anti-abortion-rights Democratic House member in Illinois. She was also the first presidential candidate to commit to a litmus test for judicial nominees by pledging only to nominate judges who considerRoe v. Wadeas settled precedent.
Gillibrand defended that pledge on Fox News by telling Wallace that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “changed the rules” when he refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
Gillibrand also dealt with a series of questions on issues that have confronted her presidential bid from the start: Her conservative House record and her calls for Sen. Al Franken to resign, after he was accused by eight women of inappropriate touching.
In particular, Wallace drilled down on Gillibrand’s one-time A-rating from the National Rifle Association — a group she called the “worst organization in America” on Sunday night.
When asked if her shift on the issue was political opportunism, Gillibrand said that it was about “realizing that not every part of this country is like my rural, upstate New York district.”
“We have to look beyond our own backyard,” she said. “We must care about others.”
On the subject of Franken, Gillibrand repeated her rebuke of Democratic mega-donors, saying: “If a few Democratic donors are angry because I stood by eight women,” she said, “that’s on them.”