Can Biden Risk Picking a Governor as His Running Mate?

Governors are the most popular politicians in the country amid the pandemic, but also the most accountable.

We’ve never had a situation before where a presidential nominee has promised to pick a running mate of a certain gender. Joe Biden has understandable reasons for ruling out any men, but the decision drastically narrowed the field of options. CNN reports that the Covid-19 outbreak may have narrowed it even further.

Several governors who have gained attention on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight are also getting a potential look. Biden has repeatedly shined a spotlight on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but Democrats close to him believe at least two others are also seen as possible contenders: Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.

But it’s an open question whether a governor would even be able to seriously entertain an offer, given the crushing demands of leading their states through a pandemic and economic collapse. None have been tested on the national stage or put through the rigors of a presidential race and Democrats close to the process believe the status of the coronavirus in each state will be a factor in whether leaders like Whitmer, Raimondo or Lujan Grisham could be picked.

Even Whitmer, who has drawn the most attention because of Michigan’s intense battle with coronavirus, is ultimately seen by many people close to Biden as a longshot. “Yes, she’s incredibly talented, but could she take the job now?” one Biden adviser not involved in the search said.

I confess that this particular consideration had not occurred to me. In general, I think governors make better presidential candidates than members of Congress, and the same is true for running mates. This seems especially true in modern times because Congress has been persistently unpopular for decades now, and a voting record on any contentious topic is likely to limit the potential breadth of any candidate’s appeal. While Washington, D.C. has become completely polarized and ticket-splitting for federal candidates has almost disappeared, we still see blue governors in red states and red governors in blue states on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, governors across the nation are experiencing a surge of polling approval as voters look for leadership in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. Regardless of the cycle, governors are basically mini-presidents who carry out many of the same executive duties as a president, so their experience is more relevant to the job.

Based on these factors, I’d strongly advise Biden to select a governor, but it’s true that we now have to consider the governors’ records on the coronavirus, which can change quickly and unpredictably as states experience new spikes in cases. We also have to worry that even a governor who is popular at home and has a better-than-average record on handling the pandemic will look like their shirking their job if they put their focus on running a national campaign.

This also argues for a later decision point for Biden. A candidate that looks rock-solid today might look hapless and helpless in the fall if their state experiences a major upsurge in Covid-19 cases, or if their economies sputter relative to other states. It’s less risky to make a final assessment in July than in May.

There are some senators who could make a lot of sense for Biden. Elizabeth Warren could help unite the party, while Kamala Harris could boost excitement and help black turnout. Harry Reid has been lobbying for Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada to create excitement and help Latinx turnout. Amy Klobuchar could amplify his brand and have some crossover appeal and strength in key Midwest states.

If Biden wants to look further, he can go for mayors (like Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta who has been recommended by Jim Clyburn) or members of the House (like impeachment manager Val Demings of Florida), and he’s appearing on Thursday with Stacey Abrams who endorsed him on Tuesday. She’s never held a political position higher than Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, but she ran a compelling race for governor and has boatloads of oratorical skill and charisma.

All of these options must be fully vetted, of course, but only the governors are a serious risk due to the coronavirus. As of today, the pandemic actually gives governors an edge, but it could work against them, too.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com