CONCORD, N.H. — Three prominent female Democrats all but openly began running for president this week, taking their most active steps yet to challenge President Trump and claim leadership of a movement of moderate and liberal women that has come to define their party during the 2018 elections.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York campaigned in the early primary state of New Hampshire on Thursday, while Senator Kamala Harris of California was poised to visit similarly crucial South Carolina and Iowa. And Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts left little doubt about her intentions when she released a genetic test indicating she has Native American ancestry — a move to blunt Mr. Trump’s taunts alleging she had mischaracterized her heritage.
These women are beginning to offer themselves as potential presidents at a time when stark divides around gender are shaping the midterm campaigns: A record number of women are running for Congress, mainly on the Democratic side, and polls show women favoring Democrats by a huge margin. Yet Mr. Trump has begun sharply assailing the #MeToo movement and making increasingly explicit appeals to male identity.
Ms. Gillibrand, who touted a paid family leave proposal beside Molly Kelly, New Hampshire Democrats’ nominee for governor, in a Concord candy shop on Thursday, predicted multiple women would run against Mr. Trump in 2020. She said she had made no decisions about her future, but cast the political moment as one of women mobilizing against a “credibly accused sexual harasser and sexual assaulter” — Mr. Trump.
Ms. Gillibrand, 51, said the political energy among Democratic women this year far exceeded anything she saw in 2016, when Hillary Clinton stood a chance of becoming the first female president. Alluding to the Women’s March of 2017 and the recent protests against Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination, she said that energy would help define the 2020 election.
“It will carry over to the presidential race,” Ms. Gillibrand said in an interview. “You’ll have many women running. It’s not going to be just one woman running.”
It would be unprecedented for multiple women in high office to seek a party’s presidential nomination in the same year, and it could create an unpredictable dynamic in the primary — potentially dividing voters determined to nominate a woman and perhaps heightening scrutiny of how male candidates have treated women in public and private life.
Ms. Harris and Ms. Warren have both confirmed they are considering the 2020 race, while Ms. Gillibrand has been exploring a campaign without saying so definitively.
If multiple women run, no one Democrat could monopolize the vision of breaking a glass ceiling, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. And any Democratic woman might face anxiety, expressed quietly by some concerned party members, about the ferocity with which Mr. Trump has savaged his female critics.
But some Democrats say electing a woman is even more important now than in 2016. And many Democratic leaders believe the political mood in the party could quickly catapult one or more women to front-runner status.
Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, the largest American city led by a woman, said Democrats had been rallying to female candidates in the midterms and there was an opportunity — “now more than ever” — for a woman to lead the party. Ms. Breed said she would back Ms. Harris if she runs.
“We’re overdue, let’s put it that way,” Ms. Breed said in an interview. “It would be great to finally see a woman step up and run this country.”
Cassandra Clark, 63, echoed that view last week outside a crowded campaign office near Atlanta, where Ms. Warren was telephoning voters beside Stacey Abrams, a Democrat vying to become the first black woman elected to a governorship.
Ms. Clark, a retired civil servant, said it was essential for Democrats to nominate a woman in 2020 — “because of how things ended up” after the last election.
“I think this was a turning point,” Ms. Clark said.
Mr. Trump, who has issued blanket denials of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, maintains strong support among conservative women and carried a majority of white women against Mrs. Clinton in 2016. But his current standing with female voters is dismal: women disapprove of his job performance by a 2 to 1 margin, while men are evenly split, according to the Pew Research Center.
Mr. Trump now regularly criticizes #MeToo and at a recent rally mocked Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who said Justice Kavanaugh assaulted her. The president often singles out female Democrats for ridicule, including Ms. Warren, Representative Maxine Waters of California and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader.
Mr. Trump recently looked on in the Oval Office as the rapper Kanye West opined that Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 slogan, “I’m With Her,” irked him as a man. And this week, the president referred to Stephanie Clifford, the adult film actress who has detailed an affair with Mr. Trump, as “horseface.”
[Read more about the president’s history of attacking women.]
Mr. Trump’s emerging opponents have denounced him as a sexist, and some have framed their incipient campaigns in terms of identity and representation. All of them opposed the Kavanaugh nomination and described it as egregiously offensive to women.
Ms. Harris, 53, who last summer defended “identity politics” in a passionate speech, earned a hero’s welcome in Ohio this month after clashing with Justice Kavanaugh. Campaigning for Senator Sherrod Brown’s re-election, Ms. Harris called the confirmation vote a “denial of justice for women.”
And last month Ms. Warren, 69, borrowed the language of #MeToo, declaring it was time to elect a female president and tell Washington: “Time’s up.”
That message resonates with voters like Jewels Morgan, a biologist who held a figurine of Ms. Warren as the real-life version campaigned last week at Clayton State University in Georgia. Ms. Warren, best known as a critic of corporate power, classed women with African-Americans and students as groups oppressed by a “rigged system.”
Ms. Morgan, 41, said it was “extremely important” to elect a woman president, naming Ms. Warren as a favorite alongside Ms. Harris and Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, also a critic of Justice Kavanaugh.
“Trump being elected in 2016 really opened up a lot of avenues for women to finally stand up for ourselves and show that we are every bit as amazing as guys are,” Ms. Morgan said, “and that we have the ability to run this country.”
The results of November’s elections could supercharge that mood, if they yield strong gains by Democratic women.
But if Republicans keep power in Congress and the long-anticipated “Year of the Woman” fails to materialize, it could demoralize Democrats and stoke suspicions, already simmering in some precincts, that a white man would stand the best chance of unseating Mr. Trump.
Kathleen Sebelius, the former Kansas governor and federal health secretary, said Democratic primaries had channeled a clear signal from liberal-leaning women. But she said the more decisive test would come on Nov. 6. Ms. Sebelius said there was plainly a demand for candidates who “push back against the misogyny and the hate speech and the rhetoric that often is permeating D.C.,” and the midterms would expose how powerful that demand is.
“What we don’t know, really, until November, is whether that is a broad constituency that spans parties and includes independent women and Republican women, and men,” Ms. Sebelius said, adding: “A lot of us still have PTSD from 2016.”
The Democratic primary field is likely to be crowded and diverse, and there is no sign that Democratic men intend to mute their ambitions in 2020. But a primary defined by gender could imperil some men: Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president, has been struggling to address his role leading the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, recently drew backlash for questioning elements of the #MeToo movement.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire Democratic activist who has entertained his own challenge to Mr. Trump, said he did not believe a candidate would have to be female to campaign as a champion of women.
“I go to a lot of Democratic events, and I know how much of the work and time is done by women,” Mr. Steyer said, arguing that identity alone should not be a decisive credential: “Does that mean that you have be gay to think that prejudice and discrimination against gay people is wrong? I don’t think so.”
And some Democratic women express doubt that Americans are ready for a female president. Murry Pierce, an engineer in suburban Detroit, voiced that concern earlier this month as she waited to hear Ms. Gillibrand campaign with Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor of Michigan.
“I’m so nervous about a woman, just because of what they did to Hillary,” said Ms. Pierce, 54, who expressed particular concern about a female candidate closer to Mr. Trump’s generation. “If it’s anybody like Hillary, if it’s like Elizabeth Warren, I don’t think that would be good.”
But Ms. Whitmer predicted that electing more female governors would help dissipate voters’ skepticism.
“If Stacey Abrams is governor in Georgia, and I’m governor in Michigan, and Michelle Lujan Grisham is governor in New Mexico,” Ms. Whitmer said, “these executive races are going to change the dynamic of the Democratic Party.”
Ms. Gillibrand warned in Michigan that there was still deep discomfort with progressive gender values in powerful institutions, adding that the Democratic Party “is not immune.” But she said the party’s 2020 standard-bearer must be deeply invested in the fight for women’s equality.
“No one in the Democratic Party should be outside this moment,” she said. “Because if they are, they’re out of touch.”