Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who presented herself in the presidential race as a champion of women and families, said Wednesday that she was withdrawing from the Democratic primary after failing to qualify for a third debate next month — a development she described as fatal to her candidacy.
Gillibrand said in an interview that she would endorse another candidate in the primary but had not yet picked a favorite. Though she stopped short of saying she would endorse a woman, Gillibrand, who has made electing women to Congress a personal cause, said the next president had to be capable of uniting the country and suggested that a woman might be best suited for the job.
“I think that women have a unique ability to bring people together and heal this country,” Gillibrand said, adding, “I think a woman nominee would be inspiring and exciting.”
But she added: “I will support whoever the nominee is, and I will do whatever it takes to beat Trump.”
Gillibrand, 52, had anchored her candidacy in issues of women’s equality, with a strong emphasis on abortion rights. She pledged to screen nominees for judgeships based on their support for the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and held rallies in two Republican-leaning states, Georgia and Missouri, where conservative lawmakers recently passed new restrictions on the procedure.
Gillibrand also repeatedly challenged former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic front-runner, over his record on women’s rights. She assailed him in June for supporting a law that bars federal funding for abortion, a stance Biden soon recanted. In the most recent primary debate, Gillibrand criticized Biden for having opposed a proposal in the early 1980s to expand the child tax credit; Biden described that as ancient history and questioned the sincerity of Gillibrand’s rebuke.
Her energetic advocacy did not lift Gillibrand in the polls in a race full of candidates supportive of abortion rights, including three other female senators. Like so many other candidates, she found herself squeezed for a space in a primary contest dominated by Biden and a handful of progressives jockeying to overtake him.
Although Gillibrand aligned herself with her party’s progressive wing on a range of issues, from health care and climate to immigration and campaign finance reform, she did not electrify liberals with her distinctive ideas, like Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Nor did she achieve a moment of debate-stage ignition, like Senator Kamala Harris of California.
And if Gillibrand never engineered a breakthrough moment for herself, she also appeared, at times, to suffer from a combination of ill fortune and missteps.
A late March rally Gillibrand planned outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York was blotted out by the media frenzy accompanying the submission of the Mueller report to the Justice Department. An early appearance on Rachel Maddow’s coveted prime time show was dominated by Maddow’s biting introduction of Gillibrand as a candidate who once held conservative positions on gun rights and border control. And by random drawing, Gillibrand appeared twice on the debate stage beside Biden and Harris, whose rivalry consumed both events.
Throughout the race, Gillibrand averaged less than 1 percent support in national surveys and struggled to raise money, relying heavily on a $10 million war chest in her Senate campaign account. She hired nearly five dozen staff members in Iowa and New Hampshire and retained a collection of high-powered operatives in her Troy, N.Y., campaign headquarters. But her funds were nearly depleted over the summer, aides to Gillibrand said, and the campaign estimated she would wind up with about $800,000 left in her coffers.
That depletion reflected, in part, Gillibrand’s efforts to qualify for the September debate — an effort that turned out to be in vain. She poured money into advertising in the early primary states in an effort to move her poll numbers, but public polling was scarce over the summer and any improvement for Gillibrand was not detected in time for the debate cutoff on Wednesday.
“I think being able to have a voice on a debate stage, when other candidates have that, is really important,” Gillibrand said. “And without it, I just didn’t see our path.”
Gillibrand was the only candidate excluded from the debate to drop out almost immediately. Unlike some other frustrated candidates, Gillibrand declined to complain about the Democratic National Committee’s qualifying rules for the debates: “I think the D.N.C. did the best they could,” she said.
Her exit from the presidential race represents an abrupt setback in a political career defined, up to this point, by a steady rise to prominence since her first election to Congress in 2006. A former corporate lawyer, Gillibrand won a conservative-leaning House seat in upstate New York, campaigning as a rural moderate with liberal views on health care but more conservative inclinations on gun rights and immigration.
When she joined the Senate in 2009, as an appointee to the seat Hillary Clinton vacated to take over the State Department, Gillibrand revised her stances on a number of issues to better match the politics of her deep-blue state. She quickly emerged as a champion of progressive causes including gay rights, paid family leave and fighting sexual assault in the military, and she became a formidable fund-raiser for Democratic campaigns.
Yet as a candidate, Gillibrand found herself shunned by a class of powerful Democratic Party donors — who had once been supportive of her political ambitions — after she called on Al Franken of Minnesota to resign from the Senate amid allegations of groping and other sexual misconduct toward women. Gillibrand acknowledged in the interview that she had paid a political price but reiterated that she had no regrets about confronting Franken.
“We know there were donors who were angry about it and did not support me because of it,” Gillibrand said, adding, “I wouldn’t change what I did, because I would stand with those eight women again today.”
Gillibrand said she would return to the Senate and continue to champion the causes of her presidential campaign. She intends to revive her political committee, Off the Sidelines, that has been dormant during the presidential race, and use it to support female candidates for the House and Senate in 2020.
“I’m really going to focus on electing women up and down the ballot,” she said.
Despite her past criticism of Biden, she said she did not see him as a problematic potential nominee for their party, and credited him with addressing her concerns about his record on issues of concern to women.
“I think he clarified his views at the debate, which is why I raised it,” Gillibrand. “I thought it was really important to know that all candidates on that stage value women and will fight for paid leave and equal pay and affordable day care and universal pre-K and a national paid leave plan.”
Gillibrand said she felt she had helped “move the conversation on all of these issues.”
But Gillibrand said she was open to considering other offices after 2020 — perhaps in the administration of a Democratic president.
“I would absolutely consider anything that was asked of me, because my goal is to serve,” Gillibrand said.
For now, she added, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure our nominee defeats Trump.”