For Biden, a VP search fraught with significance

Why We Wrote This

Joe Biden’s search for a running mate has unfolded alongside protests over racial justice, raising expectations that he will pick a woman of color. Those close to him say he’s looking for a strong governing partner.

Paul Sancya/AP
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Califorina, speaks at a campaign rally for former Vice President Joe Biden at Renaissance High School in Detroit, Monday, March 9, 2020. Senator Harris is widely considered a leading candidate to be Mr. Biden's running mate.

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Speculation has run rampant about Joe Biden’s running mate ever since he pledged in a March debate to put a woman on the ticket. Since then, reports suggest at least 13 women have undergone some kind of vetting.

Widespread protests over racial justice have amplified calls within the party for Mr. Biden to tap a woman of color. That has elevated the profiles of women like California Sen. Kamala Harris, Florida Rep. Val Demings, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

This weekend, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice both appeared on Sunday morning shows, where they were asked about serving as Mr. Biden’s running mate. 

Given his age even allies admit that the stakes for Mr. Biden’s choice are higher than ever. The 77-year-old, who has referred to himself as a “transition candidate,” would be the oldest president ever at his inauguration.

Mr. Biden’s campaign has said he will announce his pick early next month. 

“There is an extra special aspect to the selection this election,” says Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser to the former vice president during the Obama administration. “It’s an outweighed factor.” 

Vice presidential picks are often viewed as political calculations. One candidate could energize a certain demographic of voters. Another could deliver a critical swing state.

But most of the time, the actual choice comes down to something more fundamental, says Valerie Jarrett, who served as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and witnessed firsthand how personal that decision was for him. For most presidential hopefuls, it’s really about finding someone they can work well with, someone who’s ready to govern.

And no one knows that better than a former vice president himself.

Having worked alongside President Obama for eight years, Joe Biden “understands the role that he played – and that enables him to think through the kind of partner he would want,” says Ms. Jarrett. She adds: “It is one of the few decisions that the nominee gets to make all on his or her own.”

Speculation has run rampant about Mr. Biden’s running mate ever since he pledged in a March debate to put a woman on the ticket. Since then, reports suggest at least 13 women who have undergone some kind of vetting are still in the running. A few others, like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have already withdrawn themselves from consideration. Mr. Biden’s campaign has said he will announce his pick early next month. 

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., gives her opening statement during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington Dec. 11, 2019. Congresswoman Demings is reportedly being vetted as a potential running mate for former Vice President Joe Biden.

Given his age, even allies admit that the stakes for Mr. Biden’s choice are higher than ever. The 77-year-old, who has referred to himself as a “transition candidate,” would be the oldest president ever at his inauguration.

“There is an extra special aspect to the selection this election,” says Moe Vela, who served as a senior adviser to the former vice president during the Obama administration. “It’s an outweighed factor.” 

Widespread protests over racial justice have amplified calls within the party for Mr. Biden to tap a woman of color. That has elevated the profiles of women like California Sen. Kamala Harris, the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate and a former presidential candidate herself; Florida Rep. Val Demings, a House impeachment manager who formerly served as Orlando’s first female chief of police; and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who gained national recognition for her deft response to protests in her city. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another primary opponent of Mr. Biden’s who is not a racial minority but whose liberal positions have made her a favorite of progressives, is also said to be on the short list.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice takes part in a discussion on global leadership at Vanderbilt University Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Ms. Rice, who also served as U.N. ambassador but has never held elective office, is said to be on the short list for possible running mates for Joe Biden.

This weekend, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth and former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice – both of whom are reportedly being seriously vetted – appeared separately on Sunday morning shows, where they were asked about their qualifications to serve as Mr. Biden’s running mate. 

“I don’t think it’s on any of us to dictate to him. He knows best who he needs as a vice president, who can help him connect with the American people, who can help him overcome the crises that we’re operating under right now,” Senator Duckworth, a veteran who lost both her legs in the Iraq War, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Past elections suggest that a good VP choice can make a difference at the margins. In 2008, Mr. Obama tapped Mr. Biden as a way of shoring up his own lack of foreign affairs experience, as well as offering a subtle reassurance to voters who may have been hesitant about electing the nation’s first Black president. In 2016, Donald Trump chose Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a religious conservative, to reach out to evangelicals who were perhaps wary of a twice-divorced New York real estate mogul who’d been accused of sexual harassment.

Cliff Owen/AP
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrives at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Senator Duckworth, a Thai American who lost her legs in the Iraq War, is one of a number of women under consideration to be Joe Biden's running mate.

But while the electoral benefits to a particular running mate tend to be small, the downsides can be much greater. A controversial or not-ready-for-prime-time pick, as Arizona Sen. John McCain found out in 2008, can potentially cost millions of votes

“The first rule – and this is a cliche – is do no harm,” says Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and Jeb Bush’s 2016 primary run. “You want someone who can withstand the glare.”  

Already vetted

Throughout the 2020 campaign, Democrats have been largely unified by one objective: defeating President Trump in November. And when it comes to Mr. Biden’s VP pick, polls show “electability” remains a top priority for voters.

According to one recent Monmouth University poll, nearly 6 in 10 Democratic primary voters believe having a woman of color on the ticket would increase Mr. Biden’s chances of winning in November. Asked to pick their favorite candidate, 28% said Senator Harris, more than any other, although name recognition may have been a factor.

Indeed, Ms. Harris was floated as a potential running mate by Mr. Biden himself almost immediately after the former attorney general of California ended her own presidential campaign. 

“Senator Harris has the capacity to be anything she wants to be,” Mr. Biden told reporters in December. “I talked to her yesterday. She’s solid. She can be the president one day herself. She can be the vice president. She can go on to be a Supreme Court justice.”

The comment was notable not least because Ms. Harris had prominently attacked Mr. Biden in an earlier debate over his record on school busing. At the time, Mr. Biden’s wife Jill called it a “punch to the gut,” coming from someone who had been friends with Mr. Biden’s late son Beau. 

One clear advantage for Ms. Harris, as well as for Senator Warren, is that both women have already undergone the scrutiny that comes with a presidential campaign. On the other hand, both their campaigns ultimately failed, which may raise questions about their appeal to voters. 

John Minchillo/AP/File
Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., arrive to participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, Oct. 15, 2019. Mr. Biden’s search for a running mate is entering a second round of vetting for a dwindling list of potential vice presidential nominees, reportedly including Senator Warren.

In Ms. Warren’s case, party strategists may also be weighing the fact that she comes from a state with a Republican governor, who would likely appoint a GOP replacement for her in the Senate (though Massachusetts law also dictates that a special election would have to be held within 145 to 160 days of the seat becoming vacant). Still, selecting Ms. Warren as the vice president could help unite the party, some Democrats say, potentially mollifying supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who remain unhappy about his primary loss. 

The loyalty factor

Mr. Biden is likely looking for a running mate with two attributes, say several sources: “Day 1” readiness and loyalty.

“You have to trust this person implicitly,” says Mr. Gorman. “This is the one person in your government you can’t fire.”

Notably, the morning after Ms. Harris attacked Mr. Biden on racial issues, Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms gave Mr. Biden a significant show of support by announcing her endorsement.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington July 17, 2019. Mayor Bottoms gained national recognition for her deft response to the protests in her city, and is reportedly being vetted by the Biden campaign during its vice presidential search.

More recently, Ms. Bottoms has earned praise for her leadership of Atlanta. Mayors have been on the front lines of the pandemic, economic downturn, and social unrest, points out Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina. He believes Ms. Bottoms would make a strong running mate for Mr. Biden. 

“Mayors have had to step up,” says Mr. Benjamin, a Democrat. “And Mayor Bottoms has shown America what she’s made of.”

On Monday, Mayor Bottoms announced on Twitter that she had tested positive for COVID-19, though had not experienced any symptoms. Georgia has seen a surge in new cases in recent weeks.

Mr. Vela says he doesn’t think a mayor has the necessary experience to handle the demands of the White House. He does, however, suspect Mr. Biden’s VP shortlist includes a governor or two – and points in particular to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

As a Latina, Governor Lujan Grisham could potentially give Mr. Biden a boost with Hispanic voters, a demographic where his support is trailing Hillary Clinton’s margin in 2016. In November, Latinos will account for more than 13% of the electorate, the largest nonwhite voting bloc, with more than half living in Florida, Arizona, and Texas – states where Democrats hope to compete this year. 

Ms. Lujan Grisham has focused on health care throughout her political career, and her early, aggressive response to COVID-19 led some to hold up her state (one of the poorest in the country) as a model for pandemic response. Recently, however, cases in New Mexico have been rising.  

Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal/AP
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks about the uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state and her decision to hold off on opening more of the economy during a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, June 25, 2020. She is one of the few female governors being considered as Joe Biden's running mate.

Moreover, New Mexico is already likely to go Democratic in November, points out Wes Hodge, chair of the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee in Florida. But if Florida’s Congresswoman Demings is put on the ticket, he says, Democrats would have a good chance of winning the country’s biggest swing state.

Ms. Demings gained national recognition when Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed her as one of the House managers during Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, as one of just two Democrats who sit on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.

“Throughout Florida I think there is a lot of positive support for her,” says Mr. Hodge. “We can secure a Biden victory in Florida with Demings on the ticket – and that goes a long way to taking the White House.” 

Boxed in?

Some observers suggest it was a mistake for Mr. Biden to commit himself to a female running mate in that March debate. Such a promise might have made sense earlier in the race, when he was struggling against a historically diverse primary field, but his main opponent by March was Senator Sanders – a fellow white man.

“The nomination was his to lose,” says Mr. Gorman. “I didn’t see the reason to box himself in in that way.”

By making that promise, Mr. Biden essentially forfeited the opportunity to consider choices such as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, or New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Still, most Democrats argue he was always likely to choose a woman, anyway – and, they add, he’s hardly lacking for good options.

“He has an embarrassment of riches from which to choose,” says Ms. Jarrett. “I can’t think of a time in our nation’s history when there have been more qualified women who would be prepared to serve.”

Many Democratic activists also believe it’s time for the party to elevate a Black woman – saying it isn’t just a question of “balance,” it’s about respect for their voters. Nationwide, Black women are one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, with more than 90% of Black women voting for Mrs. Clinton in 2016. 

“The beauty of Black women is not only that we vote for ourselves, but we take our communities to vote with us,” says LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund. “The bottom line is that we deliver.”

Ms. Brown co-authored a recent Op-Ed with six other Black female activists in which they told Mr. Biden that in order to, “earn the engagement, excitement and, most importantly, the votes you need,” he needs to select a Black woman as his running mate.  

“There’s a very specific role that African American women have played in building this country, that has often gone unnoticed,” agrees South Carolina’s Mayor Benjamin. “It’s empowering as a father of two beautiful girls to see Black women getting their due.”

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