Tuesday was Jayme Brenneman’s birthday, and her husband, Ken, had a surprise for her. When they set out in their car from their home in Pasadena, Maryland (“it’s near Annapolis”), he told her that they were going to lunch. Then Jayme watched as Ken drove by several likely restaurants. “I’m like, so I guess we’re not going to Delaware, I guess we’re not going to Jersey—finally, when we went through the Lincoln Tunnel, I knew where we were going,” she said. Ken had scored tickets to a taping of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
It so happened that Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, also had special designs for Tuesday: she’d picked Jayme’s birthday as the day to go on Colbert’s show and declare that she was (all but) running for President. While standing in a long line on Broadway, waiting to get inside the Ed Sullivan Theatre, where the show tapes, Ken and Jayme discussed what they knew about the woman who planned to kick off her campaign in front of them. “I’ve heard of her,” Ken said. “I’ve heard of her, too—I don’t know a lot about her politics,” Jayme said. “She’s not as progressive as I would like,” Ken added, making a face beneath his wool cap.
These past two years, Colbert’s smilingly despondent commentary on Donald Trump’s doings and misdoings have helped the “Late Show” grow its audience and rise in the ratings. And recently—as CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out this week—Democratic politicians preparing to run for President in 2020 have been popping by the show as if it were an early primary state. In an extremely unscientific poll of about a dozen other people in line on Tuesday—call it the January 15th, 2018, “Late Show” Ticket-Line Presidential Straw Poll—a few people, unprompted, mentioned feeling enthused about Senator Kamala Harris, of California, who appeared on the show last week, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts. Gillibrand got some knowing nods, particularly from residents of New York State. Others asked for the word “Gillibrand” to be spelled out for them. (Securing tickets to a “Late Show” taping is a multi-week process, and Gillibrand was a late addition to the show’s guest list—which also featured the director M. Night Shyamalan—so for many people in line, her presence was a surprise.) No one mentioned Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, much less Sherrod Brown or Tulsi Gabbard. “A lot of times, when I know he’s going to have a politician on, I’ll make an effort to stay awake,” Jayme said, of Colbert. “Yeah, but when he does have politicians on, he really talks about fluff,” Ken countered. “You get a sense of the character of the person, but you don’t get a sense of what their platform is. So that’s kind of disappointing, when he brings guests on, and they talk about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” Jayme, who works for a large health-care company, hoped that Gillibrand would talk about health care. Ken’s big issue is gun control. “It’s only the progressives that even talk about it, let alone push for it,” he said.
As the show’s taping began, Gillibrand and her staff, Colbert and his staff, and the assembled reporters all knew what was coming, even if many in the audience didn’t. “She better say something,” Colbert said teasingly, just before Gillibrand walked onstage. “Because there’s like twenty-one members of the press backstage.” When Gillibrand joined him, he gamely played the newsmaker. “Do you have anything you would like to announce?” he asked. “Yes,” Gillibrand answered, sitting on the edge of her chair. She held the ensuing silence for a few seconds, leaned forward, and briefly clasped hands with Colbert. Finally, she declared, “I’m filing an exploratory committee for President of the United States—tonight!”
Gillibrand held forth on her reasons for running for President: to make health care “a right,” to improve the nation’s schools, and to create more job training for people seeking work with middle-class wages. She also named the obstacles that she says stand in the way of those goals: “institutional racism,” “corruption and greed in Washington,” and “special interests that write legislation in the dead of night.” In 2013, Evan Osnos wrote that, among her peers, Gillibrand was known for “a near-evangelical confidence in the prospect of bipartisanship, in the restoration of the Senate, and in herself.” On Tuesday night, she alluded to those same things. “Ted Cruz and I agreed on how to end sexual harassment in Congress,” she said. “Me and Ted Cruz.” Colbert replied, “Thank you for believing in something so much you were willing to talk to Ted Cruz.”
The 2020 Democratic primary field is filling out so quickly that the candidates appear to be fighting for bits of national attention. On Tuesday, in between the “Late Show” taping and its airing, Senator Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, announced—on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show—that he plans to visit several early primary states in the next few weeks, on a “Dignity of Work” tour. Colbert finished his interview with Gillibrand by handing her a Presidential-primary-themed gift basket, which included a button that read, “I announced on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” This weekend, Gillibrand plans to head to Iowa for campaign events. After the show, the Brenneman’s planned to get a bite to eat and then make the long drive home.