National News

‘Fire Gillibrand?’ A Trump-Backed GOP Senate Candidate Makes the Case

Posted November 2, 2018 7:28 p.m. EDT

The silhouettes of two supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are cast on a screen before the start of a re-election campaign event in Fort Worth, Texas, on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

Chele Chiavacci Farley, the Republican candidate running a long-shot bid to unseat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, sees some parallels between herself and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Like Ocasio-Cortez once was, Farley is a virtually unknown first-time candidate challenging an incumbent with millions of dollars in campaign funds. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Farley has accused her opponent of ignoring New Yorkers’ needs in favor of higher ambitions.

And like Ocasio-Cortez — at least before her stunning upset of Rep. Joseph Crowley in a Democratic primary — Farley is widely expected to go down, hard, on Election Day.

“Actually I see a lot of similarities between my race and Alexandria’s race,” Farley said in a recent interview, adding, “I think that very much you’re seeing a movement against career politicians.”

Of course, given Farley’s politics, a comparison to another nontraditional politician perhaps comes more readily to mind.

Farley, whom President Donald Trump has informally endorsed, has made several appearances on Fox News and cites Breitbart as a news source. She has called the migrant caravan from Honduras an “invasion,” and lamented what she said was the #MeToo movement’s erosion of due process.

A Stanford-educated private equity executive who has poured her own fortune into the campaign, Farley’s list of donors reads like a who’s who of Wall Street, and she describes her job as few can: “I sell companies for a living.”

One of her campaign slogans nods to her business background, or perhaps to that of the president she supports: “Fire Gillibrand.”

And even as Trump’s approval ratings in New York have dropped by some of the highest margins in the country, Farley projects relentless optimism that she can win in a state that has not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1992.

“My life is a lot better without being in politics,” she said. “I took a year out of my life, put my own money into this and stopped all of my business in order to do this. I only decided to do this when I thought there was a path to victory.”

It can be hard to see where her confidence comes from. Gillibrand, who has more than $10 million on hand compared to Farley’s $195,000, leads by at least 25 points in all public polls. Farley’s name recognition is dismal. When she recently visited a local television studio for an interview, at least one reporter who ran into her beforehand did not recognize her.

Gillibrand has all but ignored Farley’s candidacy, barely touching her campaign funds and agreeing to only one debate, which she used largely to focus on Trump.

The political circumstances of this particular year have further complicated things. Farley’s advisers acknowledge that Democratic energy around the country, which has thrust once-safely Republican seats into play, has limited the resources that donors and party officials are willing to divert to a long-shot bid like hers. (Still, she has raised nearly 10 times more than the last Republican Senate candidate in New York.)

Farley, who grew up in a wealthy suburb of Boston, and who peppers her brisk, no-nonsense speech with the lexicon of the boardroom, looks at those factors and shrugs. “I run businesses. You’ve got to stick to your budget. That’s fine,” she said of donors who deem her a too-risky investment.

Indeed — long-shot nature of her bid aside — pragmatism is the defining feature of her campaign pitch. She is a self-described moderate who has promised to talk to Trump businesswoman to businessman, supporting him when he helps New York and negotiating when he does not. She traffics in statistics, a habit she attributes to an “actual rocket scientist” father who forced her to join the high school math team and helped her win a “best physics student” award; she went on to earn two engineering degrees of her own.

She insists that her grievance is not with Democrats in general but with Gillibrand in particular, whom she calls ineffective and focused on running for president. She often mentions that her husband, Richard Farley, is a Democrat from a prominent liberal family. (Their wedding got a lengthy treatment from Town and Country magazine; Farley’s college roommate, the former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson, attended.)

It was her husband, Farley said, who encouraged her to run, and she volunteers him as proof of her bipartisan credentials. “I reach across the kitchen table every night” is a favorite campaign mantra.

“I’m not running as, ‘Oh, gee, I’m the Republican candidate,'” Farley said, adding that she had also won the Reform Party and Conservative Party ballot lines. During some canvassing events in the city, she hands out flyers that identify her only as the Reform Party candidate.

But in a perhaps equally pragmatic calculation, Farley has also embraced Trump, despite his deep unpopularity in New York. She has promoted his endorsement and adopted some of his rhetoric, worrying about members of ISIS infiltrating the United States through the migrant caravan, and describing children being “hacked to death” by the gang MS-13 while attacking Gillibrand’s immigration views. Like Trump, she has accused Twitter and “Big Tech” of censorship and liberal bias. And she has echoed conservatives’ concerns about political correctness run amok, lamenting that men who took photographs with her on the campaign trail felt too scared to even put their arms around her, or worrying about her three sons “living in this life.”

During a radio interview, when asked for her opinion on Trump mocking Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about how Brett Kavanaugh had allegedly assaulted her, Farley demurred.

“It was factual, right?” she said. “He’s just basically repeating what her testimony was. You can take it however you want to take it.”

Republican strategists said the bifurcated message was necessary to win a statewide race, given the more conservative bent of upstate and the moderate and liberal bastions downstate. They dismissed the idea that Farley’s association with the president could hurt her.

“The president of a same party supports you for your Senate seat? Check the box,” said E. O’Brien Murray, a longtime Republican consultant who is not involved with the campaign.

Some were even hopeful that Farley’s background as a city-dwelling, female, outsider candidate could help her make gains outside of traditional Republican strongholds, even if her ties to the president might be received more coolly downstate.

“I think it helps her get closer to a winning strategy for sure,” said Thomas Dadey Jr., the chairman of the Onondaga County Republican Party.

Still, Dadey acknowledged that any Republican seeking statewide office is “certainly an uphill battle.” Even Farley, despite her insistence that her race is not a moonshot, concedes that the odds are, if not impossible, at least not stacked in her favor.

But, businesslike as usual, she did not want to dwell on it.

“Hey, look, I’m a big girl. I am not going to get frustrated and sit in a corner,” she said. “You have got to keep fighting.”