CONCORD, New Hampshire — About 50 of her most devoted and bundled-up supporters gathered in the cold on the statehouse steps last week to watch Rep. Tulsi Gabbard firebomb the establishment.
Over the next half hour, her fire was directed left and right: at Democratic leaders and President Donald Trump, at Saudi Arabian monarchs and plutocratic warmongers, all of whom have become the bogeymen — or bogeywomen, in the case of Hillary Clinton — of her scrappy presidential campaign.
She'd brought along Tim Frolich, a 9/11 survivor, to allege a conspiracy at the highest levels to conceal information about the true Saudi Arabian masterminds of the terror attack.
It was an unusual speech to deliver directly after filing the paperwork to run in New Hampshire, especially amid a Democratic primary field almost preternaturally occupied with health care. But Gabbard is an unusual candidate. And that’s exactly what is giving the four-term representative’s improbable presidential run a toehold in this early primary state.
Her campaign got a polling bounce here after Clinton implied on a podcast that Gabbard is a Russian stooge and Gabbard replied in a tweet that Clinton is “the queen of warmongers” leading a conspiracy to destroy her reputation. Clinton is not exactly beloved in New Hampshire, after all; Sen. Bernie Sanders blew her out in the 2016 primary before she went on to beat Trump by just under 3,000 votes.
“When I heard Hillary do that, the first thing I said was, ‘Oh my god,’ and the second thing I said is, ‘This is going to be great, because that's going to really help Tulsi,’ — and it has,” said Peggy Marko, a Gabbard supporter who's a physical therapist in Candia, New Hampshire. “She has crossover appeal … and I think the folks in New Hampshire especially value that.”
Gabbard recently polled at 5 percent here, outlasting sitting senators and governors by securing a spot on the November 20 debate stage. Just 1 percent higher in two more New Hampshire polls would meet the Democratic National Committee’s threshold for entry to the upcoming debate in Los Angeles. And from there on, who knows?
So as candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris and Julián Castro have all but given up on the Granite State, Gabbard is digging in. This notoriously nonpartisan place is her ticket to staying in the race. Independent voters make up 40 percent of the electorate, and the state’s semi-open primary laws allow anyone to change affiliation up to the day of the primary to vote for whomever they want.
“We're seeing support coming from people across the political spectrum and building the kind of coalition that we need to be able to defeat Donald Trump, and it's encouraging,” Gabbard told VICE News.
Gabbard’s campaign is lean in the extreme. She raked in about $3 million in the last fundraising quarter, less money than other candidates still on the debate stage. She also has few paid staff. Her sister acts as a sort of campaign manager, though she was not on this trip. Her husband follows her around with a camera, filming campaign promotional videos, often of her working out. Her ground team in New Hampshire is mostly volunteer women from Hawaii in their early twenties and a smattering of other young people from around the country working for free.
Gabbard’s slash-and-burn appearance at the state house couldn’t be more different than her usual stump speech, in which she gives a long spiel about the meaning of “Aloha” and reminisces about winning over Republican colleagues in Congress with care packages of her mom’s homemade macadamia nut toffee.
That was how she began a recent evening house party in front of about 100 people packed into the Nashua, New Hampshire living room of Matt Gravel, a stay-at-home dad whose husband Jay works at Southern New Hampshire University. Gabbard impressed Gravel with her debate performance, when she undressed Harris for her record on criminal justice. Now he’s a die-hard fan, and he just financed some unique campaign swag to help spread the word: A pin-on strand of grey hair mimicking the candidate’s distinctive skunk streak.
Gabbard famously resigned from a leadership role at the DNC during the last presidential primary over objections to how they handled Sanders’ candidacy. Because of that, she has built up a reservoir of good will among Berniecrats. Her problem among that constituency, of course, is that Sanders is still in the presidential race too.
“I certainly like everything that Tulsi has to say. I still love Bernie.”
“I certainly like everything that Tulsi has to say. I still love Bernie,” said Melanie Shields, a plant geneticist at the University of New Hampshire, after one of Gabbard’s events. “I'm very far left, and I think that she's probably a far more conservative person than I am and I also get the impression that her heart is in making the moves she feels are necessary, so I'm very happy to keep considering her.”
There is some irony to the fact that while Gabbard presents herself as the candidate of civility who will work with anyone, she gets the most notoriety when she’s trading shots with Clinton, or taking down Harris, or calling out the DNC or the FBI or squabbling with Joy Behar on The View. But in her telling, she’s simply responding to slights thrown her way.
“There's a big difference between picking a fight and calling bullshit on someone, so I think really what she does is she calls bullshit,” said New Hampshire State Rep. Chris Balch (D), who is undecided in the primary but likes Gabbard. “I think it's one of the reasons why Donald Trump got elected is that so many people said he tells it like he sees it.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Gabbard is having some success pulling Trump voters into her coalition — something she actively tries to do by appearing on conservative-leaning shows and podcasts, most recently Breitbart News Daily, or at the non-partisan No Labels conference in Manchester, New Hampshire to kick off her trip.
Nashua resident Jeffery Howell said he saw Gabbard on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, where she highlighted her legislation to release FBI files on 9/11. Since operating a crane in the attack’s aftermath, he has suffered from lung disease and is party to a lawsuit to get compensation. He said he’d struggle to vote for Trump again because he has “some problems with his credibility,” but Gabbard is the only Democrat he would support.
“I was totally enthralled with her,” he said. “She's like a guiding light on a ship of fools, the way she talks about issues with common sense, practicality.”
Although the policies she advocates are fairly progressive, rhetorically, she can often sound more like a conservative than a Democrat, railing against Clinton’s use of the term, “deplorables” or calling on her colleagues in Congress to conduct public impeachment hearings.
When a Republican at a town hall in Laconia, New Hampshire spoke up and accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of being “owned by the banks” and Rep. Adam Schiff of being “owned by defense contractors,” Gabbard didn’t dispute it. The questioner asked how she’d resist the temptation of big money.
“Having a backbone,” she answered.
Of course, Gabbard’s fan club on the right also includes people Gabbard says she does not want in her coalition, like former Trump aide Steve Bannon and white nationalists Richard Spencer and David Duke. When an attendee at another house party in Exeter, New Hampshire, asked her about media reports about that, Gabbard bristled.
“You're talking about a brown skinned, Polynesian, Asian woman who's a practicing Hindu. Give me a break.”
“You're talking about a brown skinned, Polynesian, Asian woman who's a practicing Hindu. Give me a break. All they're doing really is giving more oxygen and attention to people who I believe should have none,” Gabbard replied. “These smear attempts are levied as a way to do two things: Try to undermine my candidacy and my campaign, and to distract away from the message that I'm bringing.”
That message may best be described as military non-interventionism. Gabbard enlisted in the Hawaiian Army National Guard a few years after 9/11. Now, she says her service was based on lies. At times it can seem as if she is publicly reckoning with the personal trauma of buying into the failed military campaign. That taps into the sympathies of others with similar regrets, or just civilians still smarting from the Bush Administration.
Robin Tyner, a retired Navy officer, hosted the Exeter house party. She, too, served in the Middle East following 9/11 but has become disillusioned by the loss of life and the failed search for weapons of mass destruction. She began to cry as she held a photo book of her time in uniform, including a photo of a memorial for fallen soldiers.
“I'm frustrated with leaders that don't value other lives, whether it’s our own people, whether it's using military people as pawns in some chess game, or whole countries,” she said.
While Gabbard’s contemporaries on the left like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren want to finance their ambitious social programs with taxes on the uber wealthy, Gabbard promises to take savings from ending so-called regime-change wars and reinvest them into the country.
It appears someone in Russia seems to like that strategy too. She has received glowing praise on Russian state TV and the same troll farms that were found to have interfered in the 2016 election have taken a liking to her as well. That has led to unfounded speculation that she is wittingly or unwittingly a Russian asset.
But Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and a former United Nations official, said the situation could be something much more simple: Gabbard could sincerely believe in what she’s pushing, and Russians could either be trying put wind behind the sails of an American military pullback or boost dissenting points of view to foment chaos.
“If you look at it from the Russian point of view, why not support what someone like this is saying?,” he said. “It’s not necessarily wrong or evil. From their point of view a less militaristic America would be a better world order as they see it.”
Her out-of-the-mainstream views have led to speculation about whether Gabbard would run as a third party candidate, most notably from Clinton. But Gabbard denies she will, and DNC Chairman Tom Perez said her campaign reaffirmed that to him as recently as two weeks ago. Balch, the New Hampshire state representative, said he recently asked her straight up too and got the same answer. Still, at Gabbard events in the state a few people encouraged her to pursue it.
There is no denying that her candidacy appeals to people looking for something outside of the two-party binary. After a meeting at a VFW in Laconia, New Hampshire, Nicole Penella, a 44-year-old architectural designer, said she found out about Gabbard from an Instagram account called @3rdEyeOpener, run by a conspiratorial minded yogi who sells shungite crystals for new-age healing practices. The account has since been banned, Penella said.
“I'm going to volunteer and I've never been political in my life,” she said. “I'm not full Democrat, I’m not full Republican, I'm not full libertarian. I guess I'm full Tulsi. Whatever party that is.”
Cover: U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, speaks to reporters outside the New Hampshire Statehouse, in Concord, N.H., Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer)