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Gillibrand’s Exit From 2020 Presidential Race Spotlights Her Push for Women’s Advancement

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the upstate New York Democrat, dropped out of the largest White House race in history on Wednesday, but strategists are saying her decision is not all doom and gloom for women.

Gillibrand, who took over Hillary Clinton's seat in the U.S. Senate and helped Clinton run for president in 2016, pushed for women's issues in her 5.5-month candidacy. She drew attention to equal pay for women and the #MeToo movement. 

Democratic strategists said her presence forced women's issues into the election conversation and demonstrated that it is no longer unusual for a woman to seek the White House office.

"I think she ran a very strong campaign that she and her staff should be proud of," Washington-based Democratic strategist Molly Mitchell told Fortune. "She was strong on gender equality and reproductive freedom," Mitchell said.

"I want to give Kirsten Gillibrand a giant load of applause," said Washington-based political strategist Adrienne Elrod. "She brought a voice to women, helping giving them a voice on economic security, reproductive rights, really honing in on and focusing on women," added Elrod, former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton.

Gillibrand was born in Albany, N.Y., and graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College at a time when female students were relatively new to the institution. She earned her law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, then worked for a law firm and served as special counsel to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After serving in the U.S. House, Gillibrand was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2009, replacing Clinton. Over time, she drifted from her conservative leanings. People took notice when she called on fellow Democrat and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota to resign after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. 

On St. Patrick's Day, she kicked off her White House campaign, pushing for paid family leave and LGBTQ rights.

In announcing her departure from the presidential race, she joins U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who all dropped out earlier this summer. 

One Democratic strategist who worked with Clinton in 2016 said it was refreshing in a way that her candidacy and word that she was ending her floundering campaign did not cause a huge ruckus in the public eye. 

"She is an important voice," the Los Angeles based Michael Trujillo said of Gillibrand. "I think as random as it is it's actually pretty remarkable that a female New York senator can run for office and drop out and it's sort of just seen as normal now. When Hillary ran, it was groundbreaking and insane and now it's like, OK, this happens."

If the parade of contenders had not been so crowded, Gilibrand might have had more of a chance, Elrod said.

"I truly believe if this was a five- or six-way race that Kirsten Gillibrand would be standing out much more than she did," Elrod said. "For whatever reason, she was never able to get out of the gate."

It is going to help Gillibrand that she chose to step aside as she struggled to break out of the zero-to-1-percent polling group, Elrod said.

"I really think that Sen. Gillibrand made the hard but the right choice to drop out when she realized she wasn't going to be able to make it on that debate stage," Mitchell said of the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Sept. 12 in Houston.

The Democratic National Committee raised fundraising and qualification standards for its next round of debating. As of Thursday, only 10 candidates had generated 2% in four qualifying polls and drawn donations from at least 130,000 people.

"She's probably going to have a more effective voice on the outside and it's going to hep her reputation wise," the strategist said. "She can run again in four, eight, 12 years and potentially win."

Mitchell and Elrod also said Gillibrand's legacy would continue on through her campaign staff of political stars, who are likely being sought after. 

Early on, Gillibrand brought on campaign director Dan McNally and communications director Meredith Kelly, both veterans of national Democratic Party organizations, deputy communications director Emmy Bengston, who worked on Clinton's presidential bid and California Gov. Gavin Newsom's 2018 campaign, and campaign manager Jeff Fassler, her former chief of staff.

Mitchell characterized Gillibrand as the kind of politician who is a team player who wants to get a good Democrat in the White House. Gillibrand told reporters this week that she plans an October relaunch of her Off the Sidelines PAC that supports women candidates. 

"There are other people in the race who do not have a clear path to victory and I hope that they are as committed as Gillibrand to insuring that we have more women in politics," Mitchell said. "Also, she said unequivocally that her number one priority is to beat Trump."

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