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Stacey Abrams’ underdog push for VP

In this May 22, 2018 file photo Democratic candidate for Georgia Gov. Stacey Abrams waves in Atlanta.

John Bazemore | AP

In some ways, Stacey Abrams is an outlier among the names being floated as potential vice presidential running mates for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

For instance, she moonlights as a romance-suspense novelist. 

And when it comes to politics her experience level is limited compared to other potential picks. 

Abrams served in the Georgia House of Representatives, but has not led a state, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, or served in Congress, like Sen. Kamala Harris. Abrams tried to move up the political ladder in 2018 when she ran for governor of Georgia, but lost to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, in a high-profile race that vaulted her into the national spotlight. 

For all the attention she has received, though, she remains a bit of a long shot to join Biden. On Wednesday’s “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Abrams said she had yet to hear from the Biden camp as potential running mates undergo vetting. Yet she has continued to make her case to join the ticket.

“I know that when I’m asked the questions ‘Are you qualified? Can you do this?’ that I’m not just answering for myself,” she said earlier this week. “I’m being asked this question because I don’t look like what people usually look like when they are considered for these jobs.”

In some ways, Abrams, 46, makes sense for the role, according to multiple experts who are closely watching the horse-race. The woman that Biden, 77, ends up choosing could impact voter enthusiasm among different groups in November. 

Getting out the vote 

One of Abrams’ selling points, according to Nadia Brown, associate professor of political science and African American Studies at Purdue University, is her record on voting rights, particularly her work to increase voter turnout among black people.

“Her appeal for black women and black voters is that she has done a tremendous amount of grassroots mobilization and has galvanized a crowd of supporters that would ordinarily sit outside of American politics,” Brown said. “So she shows that she can draw people into the process and hopefully expand the electorate in 2020.”

Abrams’ gubernatorial candidacy drew out record numbers of black, Latino and Asian voters, she said following her loss. Top tier celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Will Ferrell supported her campaign.

“We tripled Latino turnout, we tripled Asian Pacific Islander turnout, we increased youth participation rates by 139%, we increased black turnout by 40%,” Abrams said in an interview with The Nation last year. “To put that in context: in 2014, a total of 1.1 million Democrats voted. In 2018, 1.2 million black people voted — for me.”

And yet, Abrams suffered a narrow loss to now-Gov. Kemp, who at the time was also the state official overseeing election rules. She blames the loss on his efforts to suppress black turnout.

On the campaign trail, Kemp repeatedly denied allegations of voter suppression. But the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced in March 2019 that it was investigating the claims.  

After his victory, Kemp suggested to news outlets that the investigation was a distraction. “They need to quit playing politics up there,” Kemp said at a news conference. Oversight Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Maloney released a memo in February confirming that “officials in multiple states,” including Georgia, “took steps to suppress the vote.”  The statement noted that the Senate has blocked efforts on legislation to combat the alleged abuses.

Just days after her loss, Abrams founded Fair Action Fight, an organization meant to address and eliminate voter suppression. 

During Georgia’s primary on Tuesday, voters in areas with a strong minority populations encountered multiple problems voting, including long lines, delayed start times at polling locations and technical issues with new voting machines, as activists again accused Republican state officials of trying to suppress the vote.  

“If anything, this moment speaks to why the Democrats need her on the presidential ticket,” said Niambi Carter, assistant professor of political science at Howard University. “Voter suppression is one reason why Democrats continue to lose elections and Abrams, with good reason, is one of the key figures in the fight for voting rights.”

Biden’s likelihood of winning Georgia would go up if he selects Abrams to be his running mate, said Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia. Abrams, a native of Mississippi, could help Biden win what Bullock calls “the Southern path” of Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. 

President Donald Trump won all of those states in 2016, but some of them are in play this cycle. Trump and Biden are essentially tied in North Carolina, according to RealClearPolitics, while Biden leads in Florida by about 3 points. Data from Georgia has been scant, but Real Clear Politics polling averages have Trump up on Biden in the state. They also show, however, that the president’s approval rating in the state is underwater.

Abrams could also help Biden among white women who voted for Trump in 2016, Brown said.

“I think George Floyd’s murder on the viral video is likely going to push white women to say that there should be a black woman vice president even at the expense of someone like [Sen. Amy] Klobuchar,” Brown said. The Minnesota senator, who ran for president and is white, was reportedly under consideration to be Biden’s running mate. 

Read more: How Joe Biden’s leading VP contenders stack up in the wake of protests over George Floyd’s death

Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by law enforcement on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. Research shows that white women respond emotionally to “humanitarian causes” like the Black Lives Matter movement, Purdue’s Brown said, and are likelier to support a black woman candidate in this moment because of it. 

She’ll say yes

Other black women mentioned as candidates include Harris and Florida Rep. Val Demings. But Abrams stands out because “she doesn’t have to explain why she was never a prosecutor who arguably put away too many African Americans,” Bullock said. 

Abrams isn’t coy. She has been vocal about wanting the job, calling herself “an excellent running mate.”  

“The question I get is: Would I be willing to help? My answer is absolutely yes, and it’s going to be my commitment regardless of the decision of the Biden campaign that I’m going to do everything in my power to make certain he’s the next President of the United States,” Abrams said in an interview with Time last month

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and state Rep. Stacey Abrams speaks at Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church as Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, right, looks on, Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Selma, Ala.

Curtis Compton | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | AP

CNBC has reached out to Abrams’ voting rights group, Fair Fight Action, for comment but did not immediately hear back. 

Strong voting rights record aside, Abrams has minimal experience churning out wide-ranging economic and trade initiatives. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also believed to be on the short list, has significant authority on these issues. 

But in a presidential election, voters have historically been driven to the polls by the candidate at the top of the ticket, not their running mate, according to William Hatcher, associate professor of political science at Augusta University. He added that most of the research was done before the Trump era, so it’s possible that the selection matters more now. 

Economic mobility plan

While running for governor, Abrams proposed an “economic mobility plan” for Georgia, which included an earned income tax credit, a family savings program, and a financial literacy development initiative, “an overall plan that might be attractive to Biden, who has a history of advocating economic reforms to help individuals move up the economic ladder,” Hatcher said. 

A plan like that might also boost progressive support around Biden, who’s received criticism from younger voters about his moderate economic stances, Carter said. “I’m unsure that Abrams’ plan will please them either, but it’s a place to begin.”

Biden’s campaign, which is expected to announce a running mate by early August, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Even without a core focus on economic issues and as unconventional a pick as she may seem, Abrams has proven that she is able to learn quickly, Bullock told CNBC.  She has also earned plaudits for her enthusiastic speeches on race and identity to captivated crowds. 

“She had a reputation when she was in the Georgia General Assembly. She was always a member of the minority party there, but her intellect was such that she was not only respected but Republican legislators would turn to her for explanations and guidance on what they should do,” Bullock said. “She’s nobody’s dummy. She would be very effective in the vice presidential debate or simply on the stump, representing Biden and the Democratic Party.”

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