Joe Biden is under escalating pressure from competing branches of his party as he ponders the most consequential decision of his presidential candidacy: a running mate.
Black Democrats have joined in a concerted effort to urge him to pick a black woman as his vice-presidential nominee. Now some liberal groups and activists, who have long had an antagonistic relationship with the presumptive nominee, are pressing Biden to select a liberal woman.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has been extraordinarily blunt in saying she would accept the job. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has taken the opposite tack, remaining low-key while others press for her.
Some liberals are backing Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who ranks far above others on the left as a potential running mate. But rancor from the primaries has led to schisms on the left: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the last competitor to cede to Biden and the liberal figure best positioned to push for concessions, has declined to support Warren despite their ideological alliance, according to three people familiar with his conversations with Biden.
The mad scramble comes at a potentially awkward moment. Biden pledged nearly two months ago to pick a woman as his running mate, elevating the demographic that powered the party’s gains in the 2018 midterm elections by pushing back against President Donald Trump. Yet now, as Biden comes closer to a decision, he faces accusations that he sexually assaulted a Senate aide who worked for him in the early 1990s.
Biden has denied the charges, but some potential running mates have been repeatedly asked to respond, presenting them with an awkward test of loyalty.
Biden’s decision could foretell which direction he believes is most important for the party he now leads and which parts of the party he thinks must be mobilized to win the White House.
Democrats have been split since 2016 over whether energizing black voters or winning over some white working-class voters in the industrial Midwest represents the best shot for the party in November. Hillary Clinton’s defeat four years ago was sufficiently narrow that either option could explain it, giving Democrats little certainty as they try to wrestle the presidency from Trump.
Biden is believed to be considering as many as a dozen candidates, but much of the focus has centered on a handful of his former primary rivals, each of whom would fulfill different aims for the party: Warren, a liberal icon; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Midwestern moderate; and Harris, who would be the first black female nominee.
“He’s in a quandary,” said Ed Rendell, a former governor of Pennsylvania who is in regular contact with Biden’s campaign. “Some days I wake up and I say, ‘We’ve got to win Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — and Klobuchar is a great candidate.”
“Then I think black voters feel strongly that it should be a black woman, so I think Kamala,” he added. “Then some days I’m looking at the internet and Bernie bros are bashing Biden, and I think: ‘Oh my god. We better run Elizabeth.’ “
Public polling offers little guidance. A new CBS News-YouGov poll found Warren to be the top pick among registered Democrats, at 36 percent to 19 percent for Harris. But asked whether a liberal or a moderate pick would make victory over Trump easier, 31 percent said a liberal running mate would make Biden’s election easier; 42 percent felt that way about a moderate nominee.
There also was no solid endorsement of a nonwhite candidate, with 23 percent favoring a nonwhite pick, compared with 74 percent who said race did not matter to them.
Biden has often talked about wanting a running mate who is “simpatico” with him and who could develop the kind of friendship and trust that he had with President Barack Obama. He has also spoken openly about seeing himself as a “bridge” to a new generation of political leaders, and he could use the pick to ease voters’ questions about his age. Biden, now 77, would be the oldest president in American history.
Warren, at 70, would not represent a generational choice. But the liberal groups making a push for her argue that she would excite the ascendant left wing of the party that never fully embraced Clinton in 2016.
The board of Our Revolution, a political nonprofit launched by Sanders and top allies from his 2016 campaign, held a virtual meeting Sunday to discuss whether the vice-presidential pick might help unite the party. The group had just completed a survey of its members that they said showed 62 percent favored Warren as Biden’s running mate and 22 percent wanted Abrams. Harris, Klobuchar and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, all more moderate, didn’t break 10 percent.
“The overwhelming majority of the board is enthusiastic about Warren,” said Larry Cohen, who leads Our Revolution. He said the member survey “established that the number one way to inspire our people to defeat Trump [is] to have a vice president who will stand up to corporate America and corporate greed, and stand for Medicare-for-all and massive investment on the environmental crisis.”
Biden’s campaign has reached out to the Working Families Party, which backed Warren in the primary contest, though the group’s leaders haven’t yet connected. “We believe the vice president should be someone who can excite young voters and progressives,” said Maurice Mitchell, the group’s national director. “Polling shows strong support among Democrats and progressives for Elizabeth Warren, which matches enthusiasm we’ve seen from our members.”
But Sanders has not been part of the lobbying effort.
“Senator Sanders and his team are not advising the Biden campaign’s vice presidential selection process in any way, shape or form,” said Sanders spokesman Mike Casca, who said the senator’s priority remains the party platform.
Liberal groups were dismayed that Biden’s vice-presidential vetting panel, which he announced last week, included no names close to their movement. Among those serving on it are Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del.; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; former senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a longtime Biden friend; and former Biden aide Cynthia Hogan.
“It raises serious questions as to how seriously the Biden campaign is considering progressive candidates,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America, a liberal organization that backed Sanders in the primary.
Black interests, by contrast, have been incorporated into the Biden campaign. Rochester, a link between Biden’s campaign and the Congressional Black Caucus, led a recent Biden campaign call with caucus members that included discussion about black women from various parts of the country whom members believed should considered for the ticket, according to one person familiar with the call.
The Rev. Al Sharpton said he urged Biden during a phone conversation last month to pick a black woman as his running mate.
“I told him I would prefer a black woman but that I’m not making an ultimatum,” he said. “I trust he’ll make the right judgment.”
“He said, ‘I hear ya, Al.’ “
Sharpton said mobilizing black voters should be the central goal of the campaign.
“Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by 12,000 votes. Three churches I know of could have given that in Detroit,” Sharpton said. “It could be a margin of victory if he has the right candidate. That doesn’t mean any black running mate could energize. He’s got to have the right candidate.”
Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, whose endorsement in South Carolina was one of the most important moments of Biden’s campaign, has been outspoken in his views and has pointed to a deep bench of black women who would be qualified.
“I and several others have expressed our feeling that it would be great for him to select a black woman,” he said in an interview. “But that is not a must. That is just what I think would be a great thing to do.”
“The vice president must be informed by his vetting and polling,” he added. “And he must be guided by his head and his heart.”
Minyon Moore, a veteran Democratic activist, said black women not only have consistently shown up in high numbers at the polls but also have been the foot soldiers in campaigns to elect white men and women to higher office.
“That’s what we do. We’ve always fought for the collective,” she said. “We’re fighting to uplift a community of women that are rarely seen.”
Moore was among a group of black female organizers who recently released an open letter to Biden, declaring that “black women are the key to Democratic victory in 2020” and urging him to select a black woman as his running mate.
No one has campaigned as aggressively and openly as Abrams, who after her failed race for governor in 2018 has raised her national profile as an advocate for voting rights.
“I would be an excellent running mate,” she told Elle magazine.
“As a young black girl growing up in Mississippi, I learned that if I didn’t speak up for myself, no one else would,” she said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “My mission is to say out loud, if I’m asked the question, ‘Yes, I would be willing to serve.’ “
Abrams’ open campaigning has earned some eyerolls, but several around Biden say it has not necessarily damaged her chances. One aide noted, with a hint of admiration, that Abrams managed to work into a recent interview that she was a native of Wisconsin, a crucial battleground state.
“I would hope she thinks she makes a good running mate,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a co-chairman of the Biden campaign. “She’s certainly working hard. She ran a great gubernatorial campaign; she’s doing a lot in the grassroots community. Her touting her desire or qualifications makes sense.”
He said there were a number of qualified black women — mentioning Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Harris and Abrams — but said the process would take a range of considerations into account.
“The most important thing is for the VP to have a synergy with the person,” he said. “And to our ability to win. At the end of the day for Democrats, they want a ticket that can win. You can’t govern if you can’t win.”
Fudge said Biden’s choice “should be a black woman, no question about it.”
“We need to say to black women, who have been the most loyal, the most reliable in the party: It is your time.”
Asked if she would consider the role, she said: “Certainly I have been a public servant throughout my adult life in a variety of capacities. I’d be honored to serve in that one as well.”
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The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.