June 26, 2020 130 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge. Just a reminder that if you read anonymous quotes anywhere from so-called senior Surge aides—this place leaks like a sieve—about how we were “joking” in any part of this newsletter, they are wrong. We don’t kid. We have never, nor would we ever, make “jokes” about matters of state or surge.


Let’s look at the—and this is the last time we will type this deranged portmanteau—“veepstakes” again. The situation right now is that Joe Biden is up a clean 10 points against Donald Trump in polling averages and would be on track to win somewhere around 350 electoral votes. Does he play it safe? Does he take on some risk? Does he pick a cop? Does he pick a loyal supporter? Does he pick [checks notes] Susan Rice? Does he pick his nose? He’s just going to pick Kamala Harris, right?

Kamala Harris.
Kamala Harris. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robin L Marshall/Getty Images for BET.

Rank 1

Last Week Up from last week #2

1. Kamala Harris

Getting to be kind of a lock here.

The Surge’s rigorously scientific formula for determining veep ranking (asking the cat what he thinks and cross-checking the response with whatever people are saying on the internet) has heretofore not recorded as dominant a front-runner as Kamala Harris is this week. She was always roughly a co-favorite with other experienced, vetted, and electorally tested candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. But the Klob is now out of the picture, and Warren is not the sort of pick a presidential campaign makes when its prerogative is to not rock the boat. The pressure on the Biden campaign to select a woman of color has shot up in the past month, too, a month during which Harris took a leading role on police reform in the Capitol. Unless something inexplicably weird and previously undiscovered comes up in the vetting process, like a revelation that her preferred mode of ambulation when the cameras are off is to crab-walk, Harris is a runaway front-runner. Actually, the crab-walking would help too, because crab-walking is very cool. Another checked box.

Rank 2

Last Week Down from last week #1

2. Elizabeth Warren

Hey, things could change?

Right now, the incumbent president is so calamitous that Biden is earning the support of actual Republicans, not just former Republicans. He’s earning the vote of Ted Cruz’s pretend running mate from 2016, a 2016 Republican presidential candidate herself. Now, say that changes, and Trump shuts up just enough to allow natural partisan tightening to do its work. Republicans and Republican leaners start coming home, Biden’s lead diminishes, flaws within his own partisan coalition are exposed: a lack of enthusiasm among younger voters, specifically. In this scenario, polling continues to show Elizabeth Warren is the plurality favorite among young voters—and by “young voters,” we don’t mean the Crazy Kids Smoking the Reefer, What With Their Rock and Roll; we mean people under 45—including young voters of color. So how does that shake out for Warren? She is definitively not the candidate Biden will pick if his prerogative is to avoid scaring away fed-up Republicans and the woke military-industrial complex. But if he feels the top priority is to firm up weaknesses within his own party, Warren’s a go-to pick.

Rank 3

Last Week Up from last week #7

3. Val Demings

Gonna need a good vetting here.

The Orlando congresswoman’s stock spiked following the police killing of George Floyd and ensuing protests against police abuse. But it did so, in part, because of a classic punditry formulation: She is both Black and a former police chief, so she might have just the right balance for the moment. But this formulation puts a lot of faith in that balance holding, and not being undone by her police record. As Demings herself wrote in a 2008 op-ed, “Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church.” If she’s selected, any dirty laundry from her tenure atop the Orlando police force, either that which is already known or unknown, will be aired. Her vetting process is crucial here—especially as a candidate who hasn’t been vetted in a statewide or national race—because the line between meeting the moment and missing it wildly is a thin one.

Rank 4

Last Week Up from last week #6

4. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Let’s just jinx it by saying she has a good COVID record.

You read the papers recently? Ye olde COVID-19 is trending again, both in the sense that it’s the dominant news story and also that the virus is rapidly spreading person to person across the country. The new spike in cases is a reminder that the dang bug isn’t going anywhere this year, and selecting a running mate who’s ably used her executive authority to limit its spread would make a compelling counter to an incumbent president who openly says that he wants to slow testing because it makes him look bad. New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, who prior to her gubernatorial term and stint in Congress, was New Mexico’s secretary of health and head of the state agency on aging, has kept the case count in check with a robust, early testing operation. The risk for Biden, though, is that he could select her on this basis, only to watch cases spike in New Mexico later this fall, because this virus is an asshole that changes its mind on which states to attack every 10 seconds.

Rank 5

Last Week
Unranked

5. Keisha Lance Bottoms

Loyalty, loyalty, loyalty.

Nothing knocks pundits’ socks off quite like a mayor passionately pleading with looters to stop looting, as the Atlanta mayor did at the height of the George Floyd protests. As with Demings, her actual handling of police affairs is a complicated one with its share of detractors in the city, and she could use some additional vetting. But there’s no question Bottoms is on the short, if not the very short, list of contenders. Because what Bottoms had, even before her recent national star turn, that no other candidate on this list had was early and unwavering support for Joe Biden. Harris could’ve taken a risk and endorsed Biden before the California primary. She didn’t. Warren ran against Biden and, at times, harshly. Demings endorsed Biden only after Super Tuesday. Stacey Abrams endorsed Biden in May, after she had started campaigning to be Biden’s running mate. Bottoms, meanwhile, endorsed Biden in June—of 2019. When everyone had left Biden for dead after New Hampshire and Iowa, Bottoms was showing up to South Carolina events dutifully performing her surrogate duties. Let’s not play dumb (just for a few sentences here, then we’ll go back to playing dumb): It’s pretty unlikely that Biden will run for a second term, and as a lame-duck president, those Democrats who wish to succeed him will be tempted to prioritize their own positioning over their unwavering commitment to the Biden presidency itself. Biden may know he can trust Bottoms more than he can the others.

Rank 6

Last Week Down from last week #3

6. Stacey Abrams

VOTING RIGHTS.

There hasn’t been a lot of buzz surrounding Abrams in recent running-mate news cycles, where simply being a constant doesn’t get you nearly as much attention as rising or collapsing. The Surge, however, thinks about Abrams each Tuesday night around 11 p.m., when it sees on Twitter lengthy threads about the 6,000 people still waiting to vote in any given state’s primary, where voting precincts have been slashed by 95 percent. The Surge thinks about Abrams when it sees the president saying that voting by mail is the method by which Democrats intend to steal the election, even though his allegations of attempted voter fraud are squarely projection. We press variations of this point in seemingly every newsletter because it is important: Mass disenfranchisement is not one of the many things to worry about ahead of November—it is the most important thing to worry about. And if it’s the most important thing to worry about, it might be worth selecting the top voting rights expert in the field to the running-mate position. But she was mean to Brian Kemp by refusing to concede in 2018! the detractors will say. Who cares? Brian Kemp is the one (1) governor in the country that people don’t like.

Rank 7

Last Week
Unranked

7. Susan Rice

Oh no, how horrible it would be if Republicans didn’t shut up about Benghazi …

Joe Biden loves experience in the Washington credentialist sense, and that’s why Susan Rice, the former U.N. ambassador and White House national security adviser, is undergoing vice presidential vetting despite having never run for elected office and having no political constituency beyond the Aspen Institute. But! She does have one advantage that is commonly treated as a disadvantage. She has been a fixture in the conspiratorial right-wing imagination for years, first following the 2012 Benghazi attacks and, more recently, in the more nebulous world of “Obamagate.” Those assessing the vice presidential race are correct to note that Republicans will froth at the mouth over these episodes if she’s selected. But that’s just the thing—let them! No one who will decide the election actually cares, and she could serve as a powerful decoy.