Gabbard soldiers on in Democratic primary as big names drop out

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

As big-name Democrats drop out of the presidential race, low-profile U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard soldiers on in a field of five and plans to campaign Tuesday in Detroit's Eastern Market area.

Gabbard has remained out of the limelight since last appearing on the Democratic presidential debate stage Nov. 20 in Atlanta. She last appeared in Michigan during the July 31 presidential debate in Detroit.

Gabbard has raised $13.7 million to date, while candidates who have generated and spent tens of millions of dollars more in donations — billionaire Tom Steyer, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and seven others — have dropped out.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, speaks during the debate.

The event in Detroit's Eastern Market on Super Tuesday follows the Hawaii congresswoman's Monday town hall in Austin, Texas and will be happening a little more than two blocks from a campaign event by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Gabbard plans to "share her vision for ending our engagement in costly regime change wars, the new Cold War and arms race, and investing U.S. resources in serving the needs of American people," according to her campaign. 

She grabbed headlines in October after 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton suggested Gabbard is a Russian plant without directly naming her, an accusation the lawmaker vehemently denied and sued Clinton about. In the interview, the former secretary of state said she believes the Russians have “got their eye on somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.”

Gabbard, in a lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court, contends Clinton’s statements in an Oct. 17 appearance on the “Campaign HQ With David Plouffe” podcast were false and “accepted as true by millions of Americans, including large numbers of voters in battleground presidential primary states.”

Gabbard brings credible qualities to the table, but she has done little to distinguish herself in the race, said Dan McMaster of the Grassroots Midwest political consulting firm in Lansing. 

"Her platform is just like most of the others when you look at abortion rights, guns, taxes," said McMaster, former director of the Michigan House Republican Campaign Committee. "In primaries, you are not winning on issues. It's, are you out meeting people? Are you connecting with the population? In Michigan, you should be on the radar map."

Gabbard served in Iraq and Kuwait with the Hawaii National Guard and has vowed to "bring this spirit of real patriotism to the White House, serving the interest of all Americans, not just the rich and powerful."

Gabbard has represented Hawaii since 2012, when she became the first Samoan American and first Hindu elected to Congress. Gabbard is credited with helping start the decline of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris after questioning her record as a prosecutor and California attorney general during an exchange in a July 31 debate at the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

"Sen. Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president. … The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not."

Harris dropped out of the race in December, but Gabbard remains in, having raised $13.7 million overall and $1.1 million in January alone.

Despite her lack of presence in Michigan, she has an active group of supporters.

John Clayton, 49, of  Wyoming, Michigan, is co-administrator of the Facebook group, Tulsi 2020 Michigan. Clayton co-founded the Facebook page "The Tulsi Gabbard Rally Trunk," and regards her as a "no-nonsense" candidate with honorable credentials.

"I will go with her until she says she's not going," said Clayton, who considers himself an independent.

The hospital system maintenance worker said Gabbard is the only person of color left in the Democratic race and should be included in televised debates.

"There's a lot to offer if they let her speak," he added.

Gabbard was critical of her party for seeking to impeach Trump and voted "present" when the two articles of impeachment cleared the U.S. House.

But Joe DiSano, a Lansing-based Democratic political consultant, said Gabbard is "not a serious candidate in any real measure" and he expects she will be in the mix for a third-party candidacy later this year. 

"That's where this has all been heading from the beginning," he said. "She likes the limelight, she's pushing a really extreme, strange agenda."

Gabbard has said she won't be leaving the Democratic Party or running as a third-party or independent candidate.

It's "very typical" to have candidates who've dropped out listed on the Michigan ballot, DiSano said. Sometimes, he said, the campaign committees remain open for years or decades because campaigns struggle to close finance reports. 

But they aren't expected to affect the outcome of March 10's Michigan primary.

"They'll get a handful of votes across the state and a minuscule number will do random write-ins," DiSano said. "They may pick up a stray delegate or two by a fluke, but none of them will be president at the end of the year."

Rocky Bellenger, 42, also of Wyoming, near Grand Rapids, said he became interested in Gabbard when she resigned from the Democratic National Committee to become a surrogate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the 2016 presidential race.

"Tulsi puts people over her party," said Bellenger, a pool and spa distributor, who helps organize monthly "team Tulsi" events. "Independents out here appreciate how she doesn't play partisan politics. She often disagrees with her political party. That's what makes her really stand out."

"The most important thing that Tulsi can do is keep running and get her message out there," he added. "It's not over until it's over."