Staff writers Harry Brussel ’23 and Ben Gilsdorf ’21 work their way through the short list of considerations for the Democrat’s vice presidential nominee, a list that pundits and political-junkies have fleshed out ever since likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s March 15 announcement that he would pick a female running mate. On April 30, the Biden campaign announced the official launch of its search committee for a VP. For the first time ever, listen along to audio on the Amherst Student Soundcloud as you read Harry and Ben’s assessments of VP potential.
BRUSSEL: Hey, everyone. I’m Harry Brussel.
GILSDORF: And I’m Ben Gilsdorf.
BRUSSEL: Welcome to VEEPStakes. As a quick caveat for everything we’re about to discuss, there are very few elections in which the selection of a running mate actually matters. I mean, no one remembers Paul Ryan’s vice presidential run in 2012 or, for that matter, John Edwards’ in 2004.
GILSDORF: Occasionally, however, the choice of a number two contender can be make-or-break for a presidential candidate. Tom Eagleton in 1972 and Sarah Palin in 2008 dealt irreparable damage to their respective tickets, while John F. Kennedy’s decision to run alongside Lyndon B. Johnson was likely essential to winning the votes of Southern Protestants and, consequently, the White House. Who knows, maybe 2020 will be the next year in which a running mate will help decide the winner of the presidential election.
BRUSSEL: Barring the unexpected, Mike Pence will almost definitely be awarded a spot on the Republican ticket. The Democratic veepstakes, however, are far less obvious. With the presumptive nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, having promised to select a woman as his running mate, the field is narrowed somewhat, but no clear front runner has emerged.
GILSDORF: Since Biden has indicated that he is likely to only serve one term if elected, his vice president may well be the Democratic standard-bearer for the 2024 election, making the stakes even higher.
BRUSSEL: Political betting markets give Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren (all former opponents of Biden) the best odds of nomination, but these predictions are mostly operating on speculation and rumor. Other names, familiar to observers of the 2018 midterms have also been floated, such as Stacey Abrams and Gretchen Whitmer, as well as sitting members of Congress such as Rep. Val Demings, Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
GILSDORF: With rumors swirling that the Biden campaign is currently vetting VP choices and will announce its decision soon, Harry and I will be reviewing the candidates and giving our thoughts on who Biden should pick and why.
BRUSSEL: The way this will work is that Ben and I will read a quick profile of each candidate, assess their relative strengths and weaknesses and then rank the potential candidate on a ‘buy, sell, hold’ scale. We use buy for candidates we like, sell for candidates we don’t and hold for candidates somewhere in the middle.
GILSDORF: Alright, Harry, let’s get this underway.
First up, we have California Senator Kamala Harris. Elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris had previously served two terms as California Attorney General. She sought the Democratic nomination for President this past year but dropped out in December.
I think that Harris has all the qualities the Biden campaign is looking for. At 55, Harris would offer some youth to the ticket and balance out Biden’s old age. I also think she would also help Biden shore up the Black vote, which is a necessary piece of any winning strategy.
Although Harris has only been in the Senate since 2017, I think that her two terms as the attorney general of California gives her legitimate governing experience that would prepare her to take over for Biden if need be. And more pragmatically, Harris comes from a state with a a strong Democratic voter base and Democratic governor, meaning that her vacant Senate seat would almost certainly be filled by a Democrat. What are your thoughts, Harry?
BRUSSEL: You know, I’m going to hold here. I do think she brings some youth to the ticket and increases turnout among African Americans, but I just don’t see Biden and Harris as an effective ticket. Yes, she endorsed him after Super Tuesday, but prior to that, Harris and Biden traded some nasty blows with one another. Harris’s most memorable moment from the debates was her attack on Biden’s record on busing.
I don’t necessarily think that precludes her from being his running mate — George H.W. Bush didn’t hold back from attacking Ronald Reagan in 1980, and he still got a spot on the ticket — but I do think it complicates things.
I also question whether her being from California will give Midwestern voters some pause. It’s not that I don’t think Harris is a top pick, but there are also a number of factors that hold her back.
GILSDORF: Fair enough, but I’d say I’m a buy on Harris.
BRUSSEL: Okay, next we have Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth was elected to the Senate in 2016 and before that was a two-term congresswoman from Illinois’ 8th congressional district. Notably, before her political career, Duckworth served in the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel. Thoughts, Ben?
GILSDORF: I think that, like Harris, Duckworth would offer a lot of positives to the campaign. She’s a younger woman of color, which would counteract a lot of the complaints about Biden from younger voters. She also has a really compelling backstory, and I think that she’s a tough figure who’s hard to criticize, which is a good thing for any campaign running against President Trump. Adding a veteran to the ticket can’t hurt Biden at all.
And again like Harris, Duckworth comes from a safely Democratic state so it’s unlikely that the Democrats would lose a Senate seat if she becomes vice president. She is slightly less experienced than Harris, but I still think she’d make a strong selection. So for Duckworth, I’m a buy.
Brussel: Me too. I think her background as a veteran has a strong appeal all around. Fun fact: Two members of the 116th House of Representatives voted for Tammy Duckworth in the most recent Speaker elections so take from that what you will. I think she and Biden are pretty comfortably ideologically aligned, and I don’t think she alienates any constituency that would otherwise be with Biden. Buy.
GILSDORF: Next up is Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Like Harris and Duckworth, Cortez Masto was elected to the Senate in 2016. Before her Senate career, she served two terms as Nevada Attorney General. Interestingly, Cortez Masto is the first Latina Senator in American history.
I think that the Democratic party has a lot of faith in Cortez Masto and they see her as an ascending member of the party. After only two years, she was chosen to serve as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the Senate Democrats, which I think is a sign that they envision her in leadership one day.
Chuck Schumer, the current Senate minority leader, used being DSCC chair as a stepping stone for his own career. She’s also young, only 56 years old. And her being Latina would definitely help with Hispanic voters, whom the Democrats will need if they want to keep Colorado and New Mexico, and if they want to put Arizona, Florida and Texas into play.
That being said, I think she could use a bit more experience. Being the attorney general of Nevada doesn’t compare to being the attorney general of California, and she has low name recognition.
Further, while Nevada is currently trending blue and has a Democratic governor, I think there is a high chance that Cortez Masto might be replaced by a Republican in the Senate, which could jeopardize the Biden administration’s legislative agenda. What do you think, Harry?
BRUSSEL: I think I’m holding. I have zero doubt that Cortez Masto has an unbelievably bright future in the Democratic party, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Biden and other top-level Democrats come to agree that she’s more needed in the Senate than on the ticket.
On the other hand, I would note that Biden lost the Latinx vote to Sanders pretty handily in a number of primaries, including Nevada, so she would obviously bring a lot to the ticket with that constituency. She’s a super solid contender, but there are also drawbacks to her leaving the Senate caucus. So I think she’s a ‘hold plus,’ somewhere between hold and buy.
GILSDORF: I think I’m a hold on Cortez Masto, too.
BRUSSEL: The next potential VP choice is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar was elected to the Senate in 2012 and previously served as the county attorney for Hennepin County, Minnesota, which is home to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Klobuchar ran for president this past year but dropped out just before Super Tuesday. I think Klobuchar is kind of the Tim Kaine of this election, a safe choice you’d choose in order to win a particular state but maybe not the candidate that will get people jumping out of their seats. I think she plays very well in the Midwest, which is a plus considering the election may very well be won or lost in Wisconsin and Michigan. On the other hand, if I were a Bernie voter who’s skeptical about Biden, a Biden-Klobuchar ticket might be enough to keep me home. She’s an entrenched moderate, if that’s a thing, so she’ll only compound Biden’s issue with younger voters and the left. I’m going to hold.
GILSDORF: I think that a lot of what you said makes sense. Klobuchar is really popular in Minnesota, and I think she would help Biden to reclaim white working-class voters in the upper Midwest and the Rust Belt. She’s also pretty young, which again helps to bring in voters skeptical of Biden’s age. But I think that’s an area where Biden is already relatively strong, and Klobuchar does little to help him with more progressive voters or with voters of color. Minnesota is also a pretty reliably Democratic state, but I could see a Republican winning in a special election to fill Klobuchar’s seat, Trump only lost the state by 40,000 votes. I think that there are better options in safer states, so I’m a hold on Klobuchar as well.
GILSDORF: Alright. Now we have Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren was elected to the Senate in 2012, and before that worked as a professor at Harvard Law School. Like Klobuchar and Harris, she ran for president, dropping out just after Super Tuesday.
I like Warren a lot, but I’m not super big on her as a VP option. She would certainly help bring in progressive voters who aren’t totally sold on Biden, but she’s 72, and I think having a presidential nominee who’s 77 and a VP pick who’s 72 is a bad idea. I also think — and this is admittedly unfair — that Trump’s whole “Pocahontas” thing will only bring additional negative press to the campaign. She also doesn’t help Biden to get voters of color, which he’s going to need to win. And lastly, Massachusetts has a Republican governor so if the hypothetical Biden/Warren ticket wins, the Democrats could lose a seat in the Senate, which could be a big obstacle to getting nominations through or passing legislation, although Massachusetts has weird rules about filling empty seats so the Democratic-controlled State Legislature could block Governor Baker from doing so. I’m sure you have a slightly different take, Harry?
BRUSSEL: Well, you know me. I worked for Warren this year; I would die for her. I think she’s someone who successfully captured the imagination of the Democratic party with her bold ideas and pragmatic approach. People forget that Warren was considered a front runner in the primary at one point, leading Biden in both early states and national polls, which makes her the only candidate on this list who could have been the nominee. That’s not nothing. I think she would help Biden with the same voters who she appealed to in the primary, folks with college degrees: a group that’s both increasingly becoming an integral part of the Democratic base and makes up a large portion of swing voters. I believe there’s a small group of polls that show her as a favorite for the spot in Wisconsin and other swing states, not conclusive data but again not nothing. So I’m going to buy.
GILSDORF: Fair enough, but I’m a hold on Warren.
BRUSSEL: Next up, we have Former Georgia State House of Representatives Minority Leader Stacy Abrams. Abrams was elected to the Georgia State House in 2007, then served as minority leader from 2011 to 2017. She ran as the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia in 2018 but controversially lost the election to Republican Brian Kemp.
I think right now, Abrams is my top pick. She’s only 46, almost won a deep red state’s governor’s mansion (and frankly would have had it not been for Kemp’s voter suppression) and I think would appeal to just about every constituency Biden needs to turn out. Young voters, progressives, African Americans — I think Democratic performance with these groups would be strongly buoyed by a Biden-Abrams ticket, and off paper, Abrams is a great speaker with a compelling narrative. Would I prefer it were Governor Abrams joining Biden on the ticket? Of course, but I think she brings so much to the game it doesn’t matter.
GILSDORF: In theory, I really like Stacy Abrams as a VP choice. She’s a young, fairly progressive woman of color from a state where Democrats are increasingly viable. But I just think that her complete lack of executive experience means that if anything happened to Biden, I would be slightly concerned about her ability to handle things, and if Biden goes through on his promise to be a one-term president it leaves the Democrats with an inexperienced candidate in 2024, should she choose to run. I hope she runs for governor again or maybe runs for Congress or the Senate, and I think she has a lot of potential, but I think as of now I’m a sell on Stacy Abrams.
GILSDORF: Okay, staying in the South the next potential choice is Florida Congresswoman Val Demings. Demings was elected in 2016 to represent Florida’s 10th congressional district, and before that served as the Orlando Police Chief for four years. She garnered attention recently as one of the impeachment managers at President Trump’s trial in the Senate.
I think Demings is very much a dark horse in this. I don’t think very many people knew who she was before the impeachment trial, and I wouldn’t say that her name recognition has increased that much since. She does have a couple of things going for her; she’s a woman of color, and she’s from a state that Biden has a real shot at winning back from President Trump, Florida. But I don’t think she’s well-known enough in Florida to help Biden’s odds, and like Abrams, I’d be concerned about her taking over for Biden or being the nominee in 2024. Your thoughts, Harry?
BRUSSEL: If she’s on the short list, I think we can expect a one-word reaction here: Who? I mean no one knows Demmings at all; she’s never been vetted on the national stage and while I think she has the potential to be a big player some year down the line, that year is not 2020. Hard sell.
GILSDORF: Yeah, I’m a sell on Demings as well.
BRUSSEL: And last but not least we have Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Whitmer was elected governor of Michigan in 2018. Before that she was a State Representative from 2001 to 2007, and then a State Senator from 2007 to 2015, serving as Senate Minority Leader for the final four years of her term.
Whitmer is a very solid candidate. She’s from the Midwest, she’s aligned with Biden ideologically, and her track record on the COVID-19 outbreak provides a strong counterpoint to the Trump administration’s mishandling of the crisis. I think folks have a tendency to underestimate how much the virus is going to matter to the election. COVID has changed the entire political landscape. For the first time since 2008, we’re dealing with double-digit unemployment and over five percent GDP contraction, not to mention more Americans have died in the last two months than died in Vietnam. So Whitmer is maybe the best candidate if Biden wants to make the election about that, which I think he should. I’m going to buy.
GILSDORF: I agree with a lot of what you said. I think people really admired Whitmer’s 2018 campaign for governor, where she ran on the slogan of “Fix the Damn Roads.” It made people think nostalgically of a Democratic party that runs and wins on bread-and-butter issues, especially in the Midwest. I think she’s done well during the COVID-19 outbreak and has stood up to Trump nationally, which is something that the VP nominee will need to do. She’s also young, which I think is a necessity on a Biden ticket. I view her as a Klobuchar with less experience and name recognition — she helps Biden in places where he already does fairly well on his own and doesn’t help to win over progressive voters or voters of color. So, like I was with Klobuchar, I’m a hold on Whitmer.
BRUSSEL: Alright, that’s all our time for now, thanks so much for joining us on our first installment of Veepstakes, and have a great week.
GILSDORF: We’ll keep you updated when the Biden campaign makes its eventual decision, but thank you all for tuning in and have a great week.