Rep. Tulsi Gabbard gifted her long-shot presidential campaign a burst of attention after casting a “present” vote on the House’s two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
But not all publicity is good publicity.
Democrats across the political spectrum continue to rip her decision not to vote “yes” or “no,” portraying the move as cowardly and emblematic of how out of touch she is with the Democratic Party she’s seeking to represent.
“Because she’s running for president of the United States, I think if yesterday was a test for who could be a good commander in chief, she got an F-plus,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who supported California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign before she dropped out of the race earlier this month.
Gabbard became a trending topic in the U.S. — first by name, then by the hashtag “#TulsiCoward” — Thursday after becoming the lone member of Congress not to take a side on impeachment.
Gabbard is the only remaining Democratic House member running for president. The rest of the Democratic field voiced their support for the president’s impeachment.
Gabbard’s vote Wednesday was more in line with House Republicans, who voted “no” in a unified bloc. And her “present” vote also revived allegations that she’s a Russian asset who could play spoiler in the general election by running a third-party campaign, echoing criticism Hillary Clinton lobbed at the Hawaii congresswoman in October when she called Gabbard “the favorite of the Russians” in a podcast interview.
Gabbard is frequently mentioned in Russian propaganda and media, and her views on foreign policy have been criticized for aligning too closely with Russia and other foreign adversaries, such as Syria and its president, Bashar Assad.
Gabbard didn’t decide she would vote “present” until she got to the House floor on Wednesday, according to a source familiar with her thinking. But the campaign was at least somewhat prepared for it.
In a lengthy statement released by her campaign 15 minutes after the vote, she framed it as one that put the country first, explaining that while she believes “Trump is guilty of wrongdoing,” she “could not in good conscience” vote “yes” or “no” because the process was too partisan and “fueled by tribal animosities that have so gravely divided our country.”
Supporters received her explanation around midnight that evening, and Gabbard recorded a four-and-a-half-minute video delivering her earlier campaign statement after she finished voting. It was posted online to Twitter at 1:25 a.m. and has since been viewed more than 1.2 million times.
Just three Democrats voted “no” on impeachment articles: Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who plans to join the Republican Party in the coming days; Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, a powerful committee chairman who represents a district Trump won by 31 points in 2016; and Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, a freshman lawmaker who voted “yes” on the abuse-of-power charge but “no” on obstruction of Congress.
Gabbard addressed the barrage of backlash she’s faced in a selfie video posted Thursday afternoon.
“My stance yesterday, my vote, was opting out of this zero-sum game mindset and back into one of negotiation and compromise,” she said. “We’re stuck right now in this terrible scenario where everyone is trying to exact maximum hurt from their opponent for a ‘win.’ My present vote was not passive. It was an active protest against the terrible fallout of this zero-sum mindset that the two opposing political parties have trapped America in.”
Gabbard wasn’t on Thursday’s debate stage in Los Angeles because she failed to meet the Democratic National Committee’s qualifications. Instead, she was to be in New Hampshire, where she’s a top-five candidate, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of surveys in the Granite State. Her team believes she can break into the top four there.
Her campaign announced Thursday that she would hold a media availability ahead of her scheduled event in Manchester but canceled it 75 minutes later, citing votes in the House. After Christmas, she will hold a series of daily town halls across the state until Dec. 30 then resume campaigning on New Year’s Day with a town hall in Barrington.
In an interview Thursday morning on Rising with The Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, Gabbard estimated receiving just two questions about impeachment as she’s campaigned for president.
“A total of two questions,” she emphasized. “That in and of itself, I think, speaks volumes about what the American people are most concerned about.”
Indeed, voters are more concerned about issues such as health care than the president’s impeachment. But polls have shown that Democrats are largely supportive of impeachment, while nearly half of independents support it.
In Quinnipiac’s poll of New Hampshire last month, Gabbard was fifth among candidates with 6 percent support. The bulk of her supporters identify as moderate and conservative or independent.
In her interview with The Hill, Gabbard called rumors that she would mount a third-party bid “ridiculous” and cast her campaign as one that welcomes and respects Republicans and independents.
“I don’t call people names and deplorables,” she said, an unmistakable reference to Clinton.
Philippe Reines, a former senior adviser to Clinton at the State Department, tweeted that Gabbard’s vote was “about as pathetic as calling in sick.”
Kathy Sullivan, former chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said she didn’t agree with Gabbard’s vote — “You either think that Trump violated the Constitution or you don’t, right?” she said — but stressed that Gabbard shouldn’t be “tarred and feathered and run out of town for it, either.”
“The people who are today out there being very vociferous about Tulsi and her ‘present’ vote were never gonna vote for her anyway. They just weren’t going to,” Sullivan said. “So I don’t see it hurting her in that sense with that part of the voting base, and it may help her with the people that are already supporting her.”
In a sign of the swift blowback Gabbard faced — and the lack of attention Democrats are paying to her campaign — Matthew Miller, a former Department of Justice spokesman for ex-Attorney General Eric Holder, tweeted a link to Kai Kehele’s campaign website, mistakenly promoting him as Gabbard’s primary challenger.
Kehele, a Hawaii state senator, is running to succeed Gabbard, who is not seeking reelection.
Miller’s post was retweeted nearly 7,000 times and garnered more than 17,000 likes. His follow-up 15 minutes later acknowledging that Gabbard isn’t running for her seat in Congress again got significantly less engagement.
Kehele, for his part, also plugged his campaign, posting a link to ActBlue for donations.
“I am running to replace Tulsi Gabbard in Congress because our district deserves better than this,” he tweeted. “Unlike her, I will always put our country before politics.”
His post was similarly retweeted more than 7,000 times and liked more than 20,000 times.
He told POLITICO that Wednesday was a “good night” for his campaign and that he was “shocked” when he saw a House member voted “present.”
“I’m like, ‘Who has the hell voted — who’d do that?’ And then, of course, it quickly became apparent it was her,” he recalled. “It’s totally unacceptable.”
Kehele, accused Gabbard of abandoning her district and her duty in Congress by repeatedly missing votes and campaigning in New Hampshire instead of engaging with constituents in her district in Hawaii. He noted that she still collects a taxpayer salary while fellow House members Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Eric Swalwell of California abandoned their long-shot presidential bids earlier this year to represent their districts.
“Last night, the biggest vote that the House took this year, obviously one of the biggest votes in our nation’s history, and half of the state of Hawaii was left voiceless because, in my opinion, it was a political stunt,” said Kehele, who added that Gabbard’s campaign has “zero” chance of winning the nomination and that he would be ready to step in immediately if she resigned from her seat before the end of her term.
Democrats have speculated that Gabbard could become a talking head, perhaps on Fox News or another network, when her campaign ends. There’s little belief, if any, among mainstream Democrats that Gabbard could become the nominee.
In New Hampshire, where polls show Gabbard’s campaign has the most support, Sullivan — the former state Democratic Party chair — said she doesn’t hear people talking about Gabbard in her circles and could only recall her name being brought up when voters at a local event in Manchester cited her as a candidate they aren’t supporting in general conversations about the 2020 field.
“Other than that, no, I really don’t hear people talking about her campaign,” Sullivan said. “I think she’s drawing most of her support from people who aren’t Democrats, so the people who I talk politics with are not Tulsi people. There’s a reason why they hold the election and count the ballots, but at this point I would say no, I don’t think she’s got a good chance of being the nominee.”
Sellers, the former South Carolina legislator, was more explicit.
“Tulsi Gabbard stands the same chance of winning the Democratic nomination as I do of winning the NFL MVP. I mean, that ain’t happening,” he said.
“Her endgame is to be a famous Fox News commentator and go on there and bash Democrats all day.
She speaks more harshly about Hillary Clinton than Bashar al Assad and Donald Trump.”