As recently as Thursday afternoon, Ed Rendell still had hope for his Democratic dream ticket: Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar.
With their moderate appeal, Rendell said, they would have the best chance to win back the white working class voters in states like Pennsylvania who fled from the Democratic Party in 2016, lifting Donald Trump to the presidency.
But just hours after Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, made that case in an interview, Klobuchar took herself out of the running. She said Biden should pick a woman of color as his vice presidential nominee.
The turnaround for Klobuchar, a Minnesota senator seen a few weeks ago as one of the leading options for the Biden ticket, illustrates how the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ensuing protests have elevated race and racism in the presidential campaign. The intensified focus has amplified calls among some Pennsylvania Democrats to nominate a woman of color for the number-two job.
“I definitely think he should choose a Black woman or at least a woman of color. He is our nominee due to the Black vote in the South,” said Rogette Harris, the Dauphin County Democratic chair. “It’s time for the actions and people’s words to match. Meaning, if we say we’re going to be inclusive and we’re the big tent party, we need to show that in not just words but also in appointments and supporting minority candidates in leadership positions.”
Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in the Democratic primary campaign, said she also wants to see a Black woman on the ticket: Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor in Georgia.
Gauthier said many Democrats are motivated to beat Trump, but the party needs even more. “Will they be so excited that they’ll bring all their friends out and all their neighbors out?” she said. “That’s the excitement we need, and that’s the excitement we were missing last time.”
Pennsylvania Democrats may be particularly sensitive to the political implications of Biden’s choice, even if history suggests vice presidential picks usually have a minimal impact on election outcomes. The state, along with Michigan and Wisconsin, was decided by less than one percentage point in 2016.
Neil Makhija, a Philadelphia lawyer active in Democratic politics and fund-raising, hopes Biden chooses Sen. Kamala Harris of California, widely seen as one of the leading contenders.
“As an Indian American, I know there are so many people in our community that are inspired by her,” said Makhija. Harris’ father is from Jamaica and her mother is from India.
“The future of the Democratic Party is in enfranchising communities that have been underrepresented,” Makhija said, “and Kamala will excite and engage people who have never voted before.”
And Alan Kessler, a Center City lawyer and Biden fund-raiser, said that while he had long thought the former vice president should pick a woman of color to be his veep, “Now, 10 times more so.”
“I think Joe Biden is committed to having an administration that looks like America,” said Rich Fitzgerald, the Allegheny County executive.
While those arguments are gaining traction, they’re not universal. In interviews with more than a dozen Pennsylvania Democratic officials, operatives, and donors, there was little consensus about one of Biden’s most high-profile campaign choices. Some hoped he would pick a person of color to reflect the country’s diversity and spur excitement, but others said he should emphasize a personal and policy rapport.
Most people interviewed said that ultimately the election is about Trump and Biden, not the vice presidential selection.
But it’s still a more charged decision than usual, given Biden’s age (77) and the heavy governing demands that would likely confront a new administration in a public health crisis, a historic economic downturn, and a searing fight against systemic racism.
Even Biden supporters acknowledge the choice has to be someone voters feel confident could lead the country if necessary.
And his pick will come in the context of years of Democratic debate over the best path to capturing pivotal states like Pennsylvania that they lost by those agonizingly small margins in 2016. Many point to the drop in turnout in cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, and argue that Democrats need to excite liberals and people of color (though the dip was much smaller in Philadelphia). Others have emphasized suburban moderates, and some stress winning back working-class white voters who abandoned the party in rural areas and small cities.
Biden has promised to pick a woman, but those under consideration vary widely in both political and personal strengths and weaknesses. Along with Harris, some of the bigger names in the mix include Warren; Susan Rice, a former national security adviser; Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; U.S. Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief; Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Until a few weeks ago, many in the Pennsylvania donor class favored Klobuchar or Whitmer, with their centrist, Midwestern profiles. Now some are mentioning Rice and Demings as impressive options.
Several Biden supporters predicted that the former vice president, shaped by his close relationship with President Barack Obama, would decide based on personal connection more than any electoral strategy.
“I don’t think he’s going to make a tactical selection,” said Stephen Cozen, a longtime Biden donor and friend from Philadelphia. “I think he’s going to make a selection based upon whether or not he believes he can have the kind of relationship with the vice president that he had with Barack. Keeping in mind that he also wants to have someone who kind of answers the question: ‘If anything happens to Joe, would we be happy with that person?‘”
Cozen worried that Warren might be too far left for the party’s donor class. While Warren is seen as the potential nominee most likely to rally liberals, some argued that her calls to ban fracking could be damaging in Western Pennsylvania.
Several other Biden supporters also emphasized personal connection over demographics or electoral strategy.
“I really do believe that people can smell bulls—, and if he picks somebody that there isn’t that relationship there, I think people are going to be able to feel that and recognize that,” said State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, a frequent Biden surrogate. “I just want him to pick somebody that makes sense to him and that he’s going to be able to govern with, because ultimately the next president, from my vantage point, is going to have some real work repairing what Trump has done.”
Said U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County: “In the end, it’s a matter of fit as well. It’s a matter of disposition and whether Vice President Biden feels that’s a person he can work with in the future.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), who has argued that the party needs to energize African American voters, demurred when asked whether Biden should nominate a woman of color.
“I would not ‘should’ all over Joe Biden,” Booker said. “I have a lot of trust in him and faith in him that he will pick the person that can best serve this country, serve his presidency and help us to win.”
Most of the people interviewed said that ultimately, voters will decide between Trump and Biden, not their vice presidents. Most research backs them up.
“So much has happened in our society and our country, too, that I think it comes down to, ‘Four more years of this? Or do we want a fresh start?‘” said Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
And U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans said that in his Philadelphia district, “people don’t ask me about a vice president,” they just want to oust Trump.