WASHINGTON — There’s a saying, often delivered in jest, but laced with some truth: The road to the White House runs through Rockingham County, New Hampshire.
George Hamblen, a member of the county’s Democratic Party, came up with the slogan in 2016 and started putting it on T-shirts. It was his way of making it official.
He said the county, which has been dubbed “the swingiest district” in the country, is in one of the nation’s most famous swing states. If a candidate can win over Rockingham, they might have a shot at New Hampshire, and, potentially, presidential history.
“New Hampshire is a launch pad for president,” Hamblen said. “You either make or break your campaign here.”
That’s what makes U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s recent visit to New Hampshire so important. The congresswoman says she’s “seriously considering” entering the race in 2020. And while many look at her as a long shot, an early foothold in New Hampshire could lead to future momentum.
Her pitch seems to have landed, at least so far.
“I just think her story is playing extremely well here,” Hamblen said. “All the progressives I know are excited about her.”
Gabbard has a lofty task in front of her.
If she’s serious about winning the Democratic nomination, she’ll have to break away from a field that could include upwards of 20 candidates, many of whom have a leg up on her in terms of national recognition, money and on-the-ground infrastructure. In fact, she often doesn’t crack the top 20.
Among the names circulating are Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a tight Senate race to Ted Cruz in Texas, is also in the conversation.
History is not on Gabbard’s side. Only one person has made the leap from sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives to the presidency — James Garfield in 1880.
Still, Gabbard doesn’t have much to lose should she decide to take a shot. Hawaii state law allows her to run for re-election to Congress and president at the same time if she chooses.
She can also boost her own profile for future campaigns, possible selection as a vice presidential candidate or a cabinet position in a Democratic administration.
If she runs, Gabbard will face a level of scrutiny she’s never known.
Every move, every public statement, every slip-up will be dissected and discussed, from her sponsorship of legislation that set the foundation for the criminalization of homelessness in Honolulu and her past socially conservative beliefs on abortion and same-sex marriage to her upbringing in a family closely associated with a religious sect.
While this might seem like old news to those in Hawaii who have followed her evolution as a politician, it will be fair game on the national campaign trail, where she must introduce herself to a new constituency.
In fact, it’s already starting.
In Exeter, New Hampshire, during the Rockingham County “meet and greet,” one man wanted to know about her record and her history.
Tom St. Martin told her that when he posted about the event on Facebook, he was bombarded with messages about Gabbard’s past religious affiliations and how that affected her views on LGBT rights.
Some, he said, were particularly interested in her relationship with Chris Butler, who is the leader of a fringe sect of Hare Krishna, called the Science of Identity Foundation, that held conservative views on gays.
Gabbard’s parents were devout followers of Butler, and her father, Hawaii state Sen. Mike Gabbard, was a leading opponent of same-sex marriage for many years before switching to the Democratic Party to advance his political agenda.
A profile of Tulsi Gabbard in the New Yorker in 2017 also focused heavily on her connections to Butler, and his position in her life as the equivalent of her “spiritual master.”
“I fully support that people can evolve and move beyond their instruction or their past influences to learn new things, but I would like to hear your response to those people,” St. Martin said.
The congresswoman didn’t dodge.
Over the next five minutes she discussed how her views had changed after her deployment to the Middle East where she saw a government acting as “moral arbiter” of its citizens. She said what she witnessed in Iraq bothered her deeply, not just as an American, but as a woman.
“That caused me to really deeply reflect and be introspective on the values and beliefs that I had grown up with,” Gabbard said.
While fighting for the ideals of liberty and freedom, she said, she realized that also meant equality.
“Our laws and our government must apply that respect for every single individual,” she said, “for people who choose to love or marry someone, whether they be of the same gender or not, that respect and that freedom for every woman to make her own choice.”
Gabbard challenged her critics to look at her congressional record, which she described as strong, and determine for themselves where she stands.
The congresswoman is a member of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.
“My feeling is that I don’t know much about her compared to the other potential candidates. I suspect the same is true, times 10, for the American voter at large.” — Bhaskar Sunkara
Gabbard then pivoted to the topic of religion and how it is being used to “foment bigotry and illicit fears and suspicions” among the populace to place a wedge between them.
Gabbard noted that as a Hindu, she wouldn’t be the first to experience questions about her faith and how it might influence her policies.
She said both Barack Obama, a Protestant who some conspiracy theorists on the right accused of being a secret practitioner of Islam, and John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, were subjected to the same pressure.
“Whether it is Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, atheists, whatever the path that people have chosen for their lives,” Gabbard said, “it is important that every one of us stand up, call out and condemn those that are seeking to incite bigotry based on religion for what it is and not allow them to try to use that as a driver to try to divide us because that’s not who we are in this country of freedom.”
Such conversations live on a dangerous precipice, she said, and can lead to violence if injected into the political process, which is what occurred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where a gunman, who had spewed anti-Semitism online, killed 11 people.
“This is what happens when this is allowed to continue without being condemned and stopped,” Gabbard said.
“This is where the result ends up with people being shot and killed in their place of worship. If we stand for peace abroad then we have to stand for peace at home among our brothers and sisters and recognize that interconnectedness. We have to stand and speak as one.”
Her plea was met with nods of approval and applause from the audience as well as an audible “thank you” from St. Martin.
After Gabbard’s talk, St. Martin took the opportunity to meet with her personally. He shook her hand, gave her a hug and thanked her for her service, both as a member of Congress and as a war veteran.
He wanted her to know that his question about her past weren’t coming from a place of hostility, but from a place of genuine curiosity. After all, he said, New Hampshire voters know their place in the presidential vetting process and take their civic duty seriously. Blunt questions come with the territory.
“I was really impressed with her forthright answer on that,” St. Martin told Civil Beat. “What I saw was someone who has the chops. She’s got the background. She has the attitude. She has the personality and the ability to deliver. She just has a lot of personal charisma.”
“Obviously, the knives haven’t come out yet and 2020 is a long ways away so we’ll see how it goes,” he added. “She came across as being pretty damn tough and able to handle it.”
In Burlington, Vermont, where Gabbard participated in a three-day Sanders Institute gathering, talk of the Hawaii congresswoman’s possible run for president was met with raised eyebrows and apprehension.
There were many who said they liked Gabbard, but wanted to avoid discussing her presidential prospects until they know what Bernie Sanders decides. Their loyalties, they said, are with him.
Gabbard was a curiosity to many of the attendees. Although some knew the basics of her profile — first Hindu in Congress, Iraq War veteran, from Hawaii — they craved to know more.
And while some were more well-versed in her background than others, a frequent talking point was her 2017 visit to Syria, where she met with President Bashar al-Assad. While there were those who had misgivings about the Assad meeting, others thought it showed bravery.
“Tulsi has an independent mind and a generous heart,” Jane O’Meara Sanders said. “She cares very much about the people of the islands and of the country and of the earth.”
Nina Turner is the president of Our Revolution, a political organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. She spent several days with Gabbard in February bouncing across the islands of Hawaii, from the Big Island to Kauai, to discuss ways to reform Democratic Party politics, from getting rid of superdelegates to opening up primaries.
Turner lauded Gabbard for her independence, particularly when it came to quitting the DNC.
“She’s strong, she’s fierce, and she’s courageous, and I don’t just call anybody courageous,” Turner said. “By Congresswoman Gabbard being outspoken people know she’s going to stand up even if it causes her political heartburn.”
Turner did not want to opine on a possible presidential run for Gabbard, noting that she wants Sanders to enter the race.
Bhaskar Sunkara is a former vice chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and founder of Jacobin, a socialist magazine based in New York that Vox described in 2016 as the “most relevant and important publication of the American political left today.”
Sunkara said Gabbard has a lot of good qualities for those seeking a progressive candidate in 2020. But she also faces a series of challenges, he said, many of which stem from national obscurity.
“My feeling is that I don’t know much about her compared to the other potential candidates,” Sunkara said. “I suspect the same is true, times 10, for the American voter at large.”
He said Sanders was able to make himself known in 2016 because he was playing in a small field; for the most part, it was just him and Hillary Clinton. Gabbard, on the other hand, will have to contend with a large field that includes political superstars.
If someone like Sanders enters the race she’ll have to compete with a candidate who already has national name recognition, high favorability ratings and a national infrastructure of small donors.
Sanders also has a cadre of dedicated supporters who can extend his reach, both politically and monetarily.
That shouldn’t prevent Gabbard from making a run, he added. She’s on the progressive side of the party, which Sunkara supports. It’s also possible for lightning to strike, although he admits he doesn’t see that spark with Gabbard.
“I think it’s everyone’s right to consider running,” Sunkara said. “I think it’s going to be a big field and we don’t want the whole field to be Bernie and then just a bunch of Democrats who are running to the right.”
“I think she probably sees this as a way to build a bigger platform for her issues and for herself and for her future campaigns,” Sunkara said. “I think that’s fair enough. I don’t think it does any harm, and I don’t think anyone needs to stop it from happening.”
There’s a possibility, too, that if Gabbard runs, she might ultimately be considered as a vice presidential running mate.
That was the theory posited by Robert Hooper during a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream social that was hosted by the institute in Vermont.
In between bites of complimentary “Pecan Resist” — a chocolate ice cream mixed with nuts and fudge chunks — Hooper discussed the various possibilities for Gabbard, who he said would be a good No. 2 for someone like Sanders.
“I’m impressed with the diversity of her background,” Hooper said. “She clicks a lot of the current boxes for attractiveness for political office: Younger. Military. Woman. Smart.”
Hooper is a retired public union president who was elected to the Vermont General Assembly in November. He said he lives down the street from Sanders, who he described as a “genuine guy” whose convictions haven’t wavered after more than three decades in politics.
He admitted that Gabbard might have some baggage, whether it be her visit to Syria or her previous conservative leanings, particularly on social issues, such as abortion and gay rights, but he said that shouldn’t be enough to cut her out of the conversation.
“As with any candidate the search for perfection is the death of opportunity,” Hooper said.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.