Elections

Why Joe Biden Might Choose Terri Sewell for Vice President

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) questions Gordon Sondland on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 20, 2019. (Samuel Corum/Pool via Reuters)
The Alabama congresswoman is virtually unknown and wouldn’t excite the progressive base. But as a low-risk pick who fits Biden’s brand, she has a strong case.

With three of the four slots on the two national tickets spoken for, and filing deadlines passing without the emergence of a major third-party candidate, the hot presidential-election parlor game is the Democratic veepstakes: Who will Joe Biden pick as his running mate? Given Biden’s age, it’s a particularly pressing question. We already know that he has promised to choose a woman. But while much of the talk has focused on high-profile figures, more than a few tickets have featured the proverbial “dark horse” candidate nobody saw coming. Is there someone the oddsmakers are overlooking?

Let me offer one possibility: Alabama congresswoman Terri Sewell. Don’t be surprised if she ends up on the ticket. There are at least ten reasons why she might be an attractive choice for Biden, and possibly even a shrewd one.

1. Crucially, in a party that remains obsessed with identity politics, Sewell is African American. There are differing theories about which demographic groups have the most “swing” potential in this race, the most chance to increase or decrease their vote for a particular candidate. Turnout is a big part of that equation, probably bigger in today’s politics than persuasion.

And black voters are a major factor in a lot of key swing states: 2016 and 2018 exit polls showed them as potentially 30 percent of the electorate in Georgia, 20 percent in North Carolina, 15 percent in Michigan, 14 percent in Florida and Ohio, and 13 percent in Pennsylvania. A running mate who brings more black voters, and black women in particular, to the polls would be an important electoral asset for Biden, because once they are at the polls, he will win their votes by an overwhelming margin in the fall no matter what he does. Black women are the single most loyal Democratic constituency: Hillary Clinton won them 94 percent to 4 percent over Trump in the 2016 exit polls, and that margin constituted an underperformance for a Democrat. That means that turning out black women is almost pure profit for Democrats up and down the ticket.

Already having committed to a female running mate, Biden is under intense pressure to choose a black woman, not only because it could help turnout but also out of loyalty to the voting bloc that delivered him the nomination in the primaries. Unfortunately for him, the menu of plausible options is limited.

Kamala Harris is the only black woman currently holding office as a governor or senator, the jobs that traditionally produce vice presidents. Harris, you may recall, was a disaster as a presidential candidate, and the highlight of her campaign was all-but-calling Biden a racist on national television. He would presumably prefer to look elsewhere.

Then there is Stacey Abrams, the failed 2018 candidate for governor of Georgia who became a folk hero for progressives by refusing to concede defeat. Abrams is openly campaigning for the job, and she has begun pressuring Biden to pick a black woman to that end. In a Wednesday appearance on ABC’s The View, when she was asked if “not choosing a woman of color — a black woman, actually — is a slap in the face to black female voters,” she responded, “I would share your concern about not picking a woman of color.”

From Biden’s perspective, letting himself be bullied into giving the job to someone who has never held an office higher than the state legislature would be a disastrous projection of weakness. Choosing a black woman other than Abrams would mute her objection while avoiding that problem, which is an argument for Sewell.

2. Sewell is from the South. As many as four southern states, all of them with plenty of black voters, could be in play this fall: North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and perhaps Virginia. Almost every southern state has a Senate race in November: There are two in Georgia, a hotly contested one in North Carolina (which also has a gubernatorial race), one in Alabama featuring a highly endangered Democratic incumbent who would love to see Sewell on the national ticket, and others of more theoretical competitiveness in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. A southerner on the ticket could be culturally reassuring to a region Democrats have tended to ignore of late, and would carry limited downside given that the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific coast have comparatively few competitive Senate races ongoing.

3. Sewell endorsed Biden in January, when a lot of people were running away from him. She campaigned with him in Selma, and he won Alabama overwhelmingly on Super Tuesday. Loyalty always matters, especially to an old man forming a new administration.

4. Sewell’s long, deep ties to the Obama administration make her a perfect fit for the “Obama Restoration” story Biden wants to tell. (She has even said that a speech by President Obama inspired her to run for office, a story that would play well on the stump with the Democratic base.) As a freshman at Princeton, her mentor was Michelle Obama. She is an old friend of Susan Rice from their days at Oxford. And she knew Obama himself in law school. That’s a lot of old, powerful friends who could put in a good word with Biden.

5. Sewell has been in the House for almost a decade, having been elected in 2010 to replace Artur Davis. She sits on the House Intelligence Committee. At 55, she’s young enough to stand out in a race between two men in their mid-to-late 70s without being too young. While she is lightly qualified by the standards of the presidency, she has at least enough time on Capitol Hill to be presented as a more plausible president than Abrams. As a Democrat, she would be given more benefit of the doubt than Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin received. She has degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard Law, which would go a long way toward blunting any notion that she’s a lightweight. (And Democrats do love their academic credentials — they haven’t produced a ticket without a graduate of Harvard or Yale since 1984.)

6. Sewell is a “blue dog” who serves as the vice chair of the New Democrat Coalition. She’s a former Wall Street lawyer at Davis, Polk & Wardwell in New York (where she worked with Kirsten Gillibrand, another of her early connections), and she has shown occasional flashes of moderation on economic issues. (In 2019 she balked at a $15 an hour national minimum wage, spearheading a rival proposal that would raise the wage more gradually to avoid punishing states such as Alabama that have a lower cost of living.) That profile would be reassuring to Democratic donors and upscale suburbanites, and in line with Biden’s own preference for pandering to the social-issue left rather than the party’s socialist wing.

Sewell publicly shot back at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year when Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff called the Democratic establishment racist, starting a flap that ended with the staffer’s resignation:

I personally experienced Dixiecrats’ bigoted policies growing up. So, to even insinuate that I, or any other member of the New Dems, would promote policies that are racist and hateful or ones that would negatively impact communities of color is deeply offensive and couldn’t be further from the truth.

This is the most controversial part of Biden’s choice: Sewell would definitely be a “put the Democratic Socialists in their place” pick rather than an olive branch to the Sandernistas. The same would be true of Amy Klobuchar, one of the other leading candidates. Biden will need to make a choice between a traditional liberal such as Sewell or Klobuchar — what passes for a moderate Democrat these days — or an ambassador to the Sanders–AOC wing. If as seems likely his natural inclination is to opt for the former, that is an advantage for Sewell and a disadvantage for Abrams. (Harris has somehow managed to alienate both factions).

7. Sewell is not well-known at all, but aside from Elizabeth Warren, most of Biden’s prospective running mates — including figures as familiar to political junkies as Klobuchar, Harris, and Abrams — are not well-known to the general public. With Biden, Donald Trump, and Mike Pence all familiar figures, the Democratic vice-presidential pick is the only one of the four national-ticket spots that could be a fresh face. And the story of Sewell’s rise from humble origins would be eaten up by a press corps desperate for a new Democratic saint.

8. While Biden would likely have a strong bias toward picking a senator — he has spent his entire adult life around senators, including the man with whom he ran for and won the White House twice — Biden is likely to appreciate the fact that Sewell was a Senate intern for two moderate Democratic senators from Alabama, Howell Heflin and Richard Shelby. Shelby later switched parties and now chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee as a Republican, which, given Biden’s longing for bipartisan Senate bonhomie, could be another point in Sewell’s favor. And as a safe-district member of the House, Sewell would be costless to replace in Congress.

9. Sewell isn’t a governor struggling to fight a pandemic. Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer has kicked up all sorts of controversy just in the past week with her handling of the state’s lockdown. Whether or not that’s really a negative for Whitmer, it’s a risk: Governors can have problems emerge in a hurry, especially in a rolling crisis where they are on the front lines. Picking a congresswoman would limit that risk.

10. All of a candidate’s virtues on paper have to be balanced against how the candidate comes off in person. Sewell is not an electrifying speaker or a policy wonk, but she is reasonably well-spoken by the House’s standards, and does not come off as an alarming, hair-on-fire bomb-thrower. That may not excite people itching for someone to bloody Mike Pence in a debate, but it means that there would be no risk of Biden’s being overshadowed by his running mate.

Sewell is not a choice that would excite online progressives or thrill the Beltway cognoscenti, and because she has never run a statewide race before, it is possible that careful vetting would turn up more vulnerabilities than she appears to have now. But as a low-risk pick who fits what Biden is looking to sell, she has a surprisingly strong case.

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