Stacey Abrams has yet to make a decision about whether to run for president in 2020. Technically, Joe Biden is not yet officially running either. But allies of the former vice president are already floating Abrams as his potential running mate, leaving Abrams supporters frustrated that the rising star is somehow being relegated to a second-tier spot.
“It says a lot about her leadership and the passion that she has tapped into across the country,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, the co-founder of Higher Heights, an organization dedicated to getting black women involved in politics.
But, she added, “it is interesting that before she has even decided what she is doing, he has decided what he wants her to do.”
The New York Times reported Thursday that Biden’s team is considering the odd move of selecting a running mate “well before the nomination is sealed” and that his “close allies” have zeroed in on the former Georgia House minority leader as a potential choice for the 76-year-old ― one way Biden’s camp is considering assuaging fears that he is too old and too white for the job. Biden reportedly told his aides he found Abrams “incredibly impressive” last week after the two had lunch, where they each discussed their future plans, an Abrams aide said. (The aide did not specify whether they discussed the plan to be on a joint ticket.)
Since Abrams came within 55,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race last year ― as the first black woman to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee ever ― she has emerged as one of the stars of her party. That was clear last month, when Abrams delivered the rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. And it is still clear now, as New York magazine runs excited headlines like “Stacey Abrams for …. Governor? Senator? Veep? President?!”
For that reason, Democratic strategists and black organizers expressed skepticism about why a rising star like Abrams would want to hitch her wagon to Biden so early, even if he currently leads in national polls. Yvette Simpson, the chief executive of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee that supported Abrams for governor before she even entered the Georgia race, said Biden seems to have more to gain at this stage.
“I can see the benefit of Joe Biden selecting a Stacey Abrams,” Simpson said. “What I can’t quite figure out at this stage is what the benefit is to Stacey Abrams.”
For Biden’s team, the political upside of successfully enticing Abrams would be clear. Black women have developed into a dominant force in Democratic primary politics, and Abrams might help Biden convince some black voters to pick him in a field that includes Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). “Some could say that is the former vice president recognizing where he may need some help on the campaign trail with black women and women in general,” Peeler-Allen said. It could also help Biden respond to criticisms that he’s been on the wrong side of issues like desegregation and abortion over the years.
For Abrams’ part, she could end up with a clear avenue to the presidency if Biden were to win the nomination with her on the ticket. But Peeler-Allen noted that there would also be a considerable risk: Biden could flame out in the primary as he has twice before, leaving Abrams attached to a losing candidate with many fewer options than she has now.
“There are a lot of chess pieces,” Peeler-Allen said.
On Friday evening, Biden spokesman Bill Russo tweeted that the former vice president has “an enormous amount of respect” for Abrams but “these rumors about discussions on a pre-cooked ticket are false, plain and simple.”
In a Thursday statement, former Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo downplayed last week’s lunch with Biden, noting that Abrams “has met with over half a dozen presidential contenders” and “continues to keep all options on the table for 2020 and beyond.”
Groh-Wargo tweeted on Friday that “there was no grand plan hatched” at that luncheon.
Abrams herself has indicated that she plans to make a decision about her next steps by the end of March or beginning of April. Those potential moves include a Senate run ― she met with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Friday to discuss a possible Senate race, according to an aide ― and a presidential run.
“She’s been consistent and clear about that,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of the African-American organization Black PAC. “So I actually find it a little disrespectful that anyone would attempt to pre-empt that process and make assumptions and assertions about the direction she should be taking her life in.”
Others felt similarly. “It’s as if she doesn’t have agency in this,” said a Democratic strategist who declined to be named because her organization has relationships with all the candidates. “She could fucking say no to you [Biden] ― and she should. Why should she say yes?”
Another Democratic strategist and U.S. Senate veteran looked at the potential ticket another way, saying the unusual idea of Biden selecting his running mate early could come across as “a significant sign of weakness,” as if he knew he could not run a sufficiently enticing campaign on his own.
Ben LaBolt, a former Barack Obama spokesman, said that even though Abrams is “a serious candidate” and a “great communicator and legislator,” bringing her on early might prove a “risk” in a primary that “could be protracted and contentious.”
“You’d remove the option of announcing a runner-up who performs very well during the course of the primary,” LaBolt said.
In the first presidential election of the Me Too era, many also expect Biden’s conduct during the 1991 Anita Hill hearings to become a campaign issue once more. Abrams herself recently told Marie Claire that she “vividly” remembered watching “those men in power deny [Hill’s] humanity” during the hearings.
Shropshire warned that Biden “needs to be careful that this doesn’t come off looking like some kind of gimmick,” where he puts “a body in front of his record.” The other potential issue she foresaw is the move coming across as a cynical play for black women.
“We understand that black women within the Democratic Party have significant influence,” Shropshire said. But, she added, Biden’s team should be wary of toying with Abrams’ future in the press before she makes her own decision, just like they should be wary of assuming “black women’s vote can be co-opted in some way.”
“In making such an assertion, you’re also taking for granted the self-determination of black women,” Shropshire said, “and black women within the Democratic Party.”
Emily Peck and Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.
The story has been updated with comment from Biden spokesman Bill Russo and additional comment from former Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo.