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In a crowded presidential primary, how much do home state endorsements matter?

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's first home state endorsement comes two months after she launched her exploratory committee and the same day as her official 2020 campaign launch.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is running for president. Two months into the campaign, she secured her first endorsement from her home state. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is running for president. Two months into the campaign, she secured her first endorsement from her home state. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

For weeks, the 2020 candidates have been racking up endorsements from their home state delegations. Two months into her presidential campaign, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) finally received one too — from fellow New York lawmaker Carolyn Maloney.

“I am proud to endorse my friend @SenGillibrand to be our next President and the nation’s first woman President,” Rep. Maloney tweeted Sunday. “I saw tenacity when we fought together to pass the 9/11 Health bill and know she has what it takes to defeat Trump.”

Maloney’s announcement came the same day Gillibrand made her presidential campaign official, moving out of the exploratory phase.

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Gillibrand, whose 2020 slogan is “Brave Wins,” made her name in the Senate focusing on sexual assault, in particular military sexual assault and issues important to working moms.

“Brave doesn’t pit people against each other. Brave doesn’t put money over lives,” Gillibrand said in her announcement video released Sunday. “Brave doesn’t spread hate. Cloud truth. Build a wall. That’s what fear does.”

But the early going has been rocky.

In addition to a dearth of endorsements, she’s also faced controversy over how her office handled a former employee who was accused of sexual harassment, and she’s trailing seriously in the polls, coming with an average of about 0.5 percent against the crowded field, according to RealClearPolitics.

Gillibrand’s past has also come under scrutiny. While she has staked out progressive ground in the primary — endorsing Medicare for All, calling for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and supporting the Green New Deal — her platform now is a far cry from what it was a decade ago, when, as a House representative from upstate New York, she called for making English the official language of the United States and had an A rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

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In an interview with The New York Times this month, Maloney attributed the paucity of endorsements for Gillibrand to the fact that she had not yet formalized her presidential candidacy.

That explanation, however, overlooked the experience of other candidates in the field, who snapped up endorsements while in the exploratory phase or who garnered endorsement after they announced as full-blown candidates.

“It is telling,” Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, said of Gillibrand’s lack of endorsements from politicians from her state. “A fair question is to ask is why not?” 

Another fair question, Stockley said, is whether it matters.

“On the one hand, we have an array of statistical analyses that suggest the overall worth of an endorsement from a vote counting perspective appears to be very small,” Stockley said. “Endorsements don’t seem to be the most significant numerical factor in a campaign.

Endorsements don’t change voters’ minds, Stockley said. Rather, they affirm choices they’ve already made, and for donors, endorsements are often an “elite signal” that it’s safe to invest in a certain candidate.

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For elected officials, the question of whom to endorse and when to do so can be a tricky one. “There’s a good reason to be patient and highly selective,” Stockley said. 

Endorsing too early and seeing your preferred contender fizzle out could be embarrassing, and could lead to burned bridges with other candidates. But not endorsing or waiting too long to do so can also be fraught with peril.

The stakes are particularly high with home state endorsements, Stockley said. There’s clout in having one of your own in the White House, which explains why so many contenders lock down a significant number of endorsements within their home state delegations as quickly as they can.

Just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, for example, Sen. Cory Booker made quick work of snapping up the support of his entire caucus: The 11 Democratic members of Congress from New Jersey have endorsed him, as have Sen. Bob Menendez and the state’s Democratic governor, Gov. Phil Murphy.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) meanwhile, has racked up endorsements from Gov. Gavin Newsom three-quarters of the state senate, and several California House members. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for his part, quickly snagged the endorsements of his fellow Vermont senator, Sen. Patrick Leahy  and the state’s only House member, Rep. Peter Welch.

Gillibrand simply doesn’t seem to inspire that same excitement in her Empire State colleagues. To make matters worse, after Beto O’Rourke announced his own 2020 campaign last week, two House members from New York — Reps. John Patrick Maloney and Kathleen Rice — quickly endorsed the former Texas representative.

“She certainly hasn’t prioritized trying to become a power broker within New York State,” Peter Kauffmann, a Democratic strategist in New York and former press secretary for Hillary Clinton, recently told The New York Times.

“The folks that are familiar with her tend to see her on cable news fighting for progressive issues. She doesn’t do a lot of the work at home that extends your influence in the state.”

Even if she had hoped to gain the support of New York’s power brokers, it would seem that most are already spoken for — at least for the time being.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is flirting with a presidential race of his own, and the senior US senator from the state, Sen. Chuck Schumer, is the Senate Minority Leader, is not issuing endorsements in a race that so many of Democrats in his chamber are part taking part it.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo already has essentially endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to enter the race within the next few weeks, saying repeatedly that the longtime senator and former vice president has the “best case” among 2020 contenders.

Not that Cuomo didn’t have plenty of opportunities to cast his lot with Gillibrand. At a press conference with Cuomo on Monday, a reporter noted that New York’s junior U.S. senator had officially entered the race, and suggested saying that it would be “a perfect time for [Cuomo] to endorse her.”

“Thank you for that political insight,” the governor said archly, before moving on to the next question.