Gillibrand Bashes 2020 Democrats for Prioritizing Small-Dollar Donations

'I don’t think it’s a measure of electability'

Kirsten Gillibrand | Getty

New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D.) bashed the Democratic National Committee and her fellow 2020 presidential candidates for placing too much importance on small-dollar donors, saying broad grassroots support was not "a measure of electability."

Gillibrand made the comments to The New York Times on Wednesday in response to the DNC announcing it would tighten eligibility criteria for its third presidential primary debate this fall. Currently, for candidates to earn a spot in the first two debates they must either reach 1 percent in at least three DNC-approved polls or have 65,000 unique donors—including at least 200 contributions from 20 different states.

For the third debate, the DNC will limit eligibility to candidates polling at 2 percent in four state or national DNC-approved surveys. Candidates will also have the ability to qualify by receiving donations from 130,000 individuals from at least 20 states. Like the first two debates, attendance will be capped to 20 candidates, with spots prioritized for individuals that meet both thresholds.

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Gillibrand, who has failed to gain traction in the crowded 24-person field, told the Times the new debate criteria gave an outsize influence to small-dollar donors.

"I don't think it's a measure of success," she said. "I don't think it's a measure of electability. I don't think it's a measure of quality of candidate."

Gillibrand's campaign would not confirm if they had already reached the 65,000 threshold to qualify for the first debate, scheduled on June 26-27. As recently as last week, Gillibrand's campaign said in a fundraising email they were "working overtime" to secure her a "spot on the debate stage." 

It is also unclear if Gillibrand will qualify for the first debate on the basis of polling. The New York senator currently registers at an average of 0.4 percent in national surveys, according to Real Clear Politics.

Gillibrand's struggle to qualify for the debate stage underscores the larger fundraising issues her presidential campaign has encountered. Before entering the race, Gillibrand joined a bevy of other 2020 Democrats in pledging to refuse any further corporate PAC donations. Instead of proving principled, the act may have backfired on Gillibrand by cutting off a revenue stream that had heavily underwritten her prior campaigns for public office.

In the first quarter of this year, Gillibrand only raised $3 million, trailing both better known candidates such as Bernie Sanders ($18 million) and political newcomers like Pete Buttigieg ($7 million).

Compounding Gillibrand's problem is that less than $500,000 of her fundraising came from small-dollar donors, those contributing $200 or less. In contrast, more than $2.49 million of her first quarter haul came from large-dollar donors like Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon.

The discrepancy between large and small-dollar donors is nothing new for Gillibrand. Between 2013 and 2018, the New York Democrat raised more than $20 million for her reelection bid, nearly 60 percent of which came from large-dollar donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Sizable donations played an even bigger role during Gillibrand's 2012 senate run. That cycle, more than 72 percent ($11.36 million) of her total campaign funds came from large individual contributors.