WASHINGTON — Joe Biden’s recent embrace of more sweeping change, bankruptcy reform and the populist economic policies he rolled out early this month all owe something to his former progressive rival in the presidential primaries: Senator Elizabeth Warren.
The alliance between the two has pushed his platform as presumptive Democratic nominee to the left and turned her into his enthusiastic surrogate. It’s also kept eyes on Warren as a serious contender for the coveted running-mate spot as he closes in on his selection — although her chances may well be affected by growing calls for Biden to choose a woman of color and a mist of uncertainty about what it would mean temporarily for her Senate seat.
Biden has pledged to pick a woman, and his choice could effectively anoint his party’s nominee in 2024 — since, at age 77, he seems unlikely to run for a second term if elected.
With less than a month to go before the Democratic convention begins on Aug. 17 and the stakes sky high, Biden’s team is vetting a diverse group of women, including California Senator Kamala Harris, Florida Representative Val Demings and former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice. Warren has stayed in the mix as the top choice among many progressives.
“I don’t think she’s out of the running,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a longtime Biden ally. “Joe has become very impressed with Elizabeth’s breadth of knowledge.”
Warren has carefully maneuvered delicate questions of representation while campaigning for the role, calling herself an ally and engaging directly with the civil rights protests after the brutal killing of George Floyd fueled an urgent reckoning around racism in America. She attended demonstrators in Washington, offered up policy proposals intended to tackle structural racism, and reached out to Black activists with private phone calls and virtual events.
“I was going to say I’m here today as an ally, but really, can we just go with ‘co-conspirator'?” Warren asked when she joined a group of Black woman activists, including Adrianne Shropshire, the founder of BlackPAC and Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project, for a virtual happy hour last month; they said she was the first white woman they had invited.
Some of Warren’s former endorsers have joined the calls for Biden to pick a Black woman, yet she could be lifted by support from Black progressives who either prefer her outright or have expressed an openness to her if Biden does not choose a woman of color.
Warren has left it to her supporters to explain why she would be a better fit for the moment than the other contenders Biden is vetting.
“The decision is the vice president’s,” Warren said during a recent CNN interview, repeating the sentiment three times in total.
Her backers say she is uniquely equipped to take on the triple crises of the coronavirus, the economic downturn, and police violence — all of which disproportionately affect minorities — and to help Biden close his enthusiasm gap with young voters of color. They point to Warren’s presidential campaign, in which she wove critiques of structural racism into every stop and called for policies to actively reverse it.
“The Black electorate is very sophisticated. What we ultimately are concerned with is who is going to deliver most faithfully on a Black public policy agenda,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the progressive Working Families Party. “I don’t think there is any question that Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated her commitment to doing that.”
Polling over the past couple of months has shown that, although she lagged with them during the primaries,, Warren is a fairly popular vice presidential choice among Black Democrats, along with Harris and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. A New York Times poll found three quarters of Black voters, and 80 percent of all voters, do not think Biden should take race into account when picking his running mate.
“Getting rid of [Trump] overshadows everything else,” said Ron Lester, a pollster who focused on Black voters for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, about the running-mate decision. “Most people really don’t care that much as long as it’s someone who is competent, who can do the job.”
But several prominent Democratic activists say an all-white ticket wouldn’t meet the moment for a party — or a candidacy — that has been consistently lifted by the electoral support of Black women.
“This election will be decided by how many Black people will wait in line for four, five, six hours to vote, and nothing else,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “I think our base feels that Senator Warren is infinitely qualified, she would be an exciting pick, but there are women of color — particularly Stacey Abrams, Barbara Lee, even Ayanna Pressley, who are ready for the responsibility and will carry that mantle as well.”
Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers labor union, is among the Democrats who endorsed Warren for president but have said it would be significant if Biden were to choose a woman of color.
“I think it’s really important, given what has happened in racial justice, for African-Americans to see themselves in the highest office, to see themselves there,” Weingarten said. “I think that picking an African-American woman would serve that purpose.”
Of Warren, she added, “I think any role that Elizabeth Warren wants to be in is a role that she will excel in and that the country will be served by.”
Many Democrats who are calling for Biden to pick a Black woman have expressed openness to Warren, too, praising her willingness to speak frankly on race. LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said Biden “fundamentally needs a Black woman on the ticket” but that she would still be “happy” if Warren were chosen.
Some contrast Warren with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, another white woman who sought the Democratic nomination. She removed herself from running-mate consideration after Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis police increased scrutiny of her years as a prosecutor in Minnesota.
Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, an organization that advocates for women of color to play a bigger role in politics, described Warren as a “model” for other white politicians on how to engage with race and said she would not ask her to remove herself from contention, although she wants Biden to pick a woman of color.
“I wouldn’t make that demand of her,” said Allison. “I would ask that every white politician figure out where they should be making space.”
Some of Warren’s backers argue that her policies matter more than representation. Biden has struggled to excite young and progressive voters and Warren’s allies think she could boost enthusiasm for Biden among younger Black voters who are less enthusiastic about his candidacy than their parents.
“It is a big mistake to think that those folks would be appeased or assuaged simply by a black woman vice presidential candidate,” said Angela Peoples, the leader of a group called Black Womxn For, which backed Warren in the primary, and coauthor of a Washington Post op-ed backing Warren for the job.
Warren’s home state may also prove to be an obstacle to her being chosen. Massachusetts is already considered a lock for Biden to win so she brings no electoral advantage to the ticket. Plus, opponents of her being picked frequently evoke an entirely different issue to disqualify her: The fact that, upon her resignation from the Senate, Baker could choose a Republican to fill her seat for roughly five months before a special election, which could at least briefly make it harder for Democrats to claim a majority in the chamber next year.
“I don’t think she has a snowball’s chance in hell,” John Morgan, a Florida attorney and Biden fund-raiser who is backing Demings for the nod, said of Warren. “I can’t imagine a scenario where she gets to be the VP, in large part because of that Senate seat.”
Warren’s allies point out that if she were chosen and then elected, she could resign before her term ends in January to start the clock on a special election early. They also say Democrats in Massachusetts — who have a veto-proof supermajority in the Legislature — could change the succession law, but there appears to be little enthusiasm on Beacon Hill to do so in the waning weeks of the legislative session.
“We tried to do that when Teddy Kennedy passed away and we ended up flipping it around two-three different times and not getting the results that we wanted,” said Ron Mariano, the Democratic House majority leader, of the Legislature’s previous attempts to curb Republican governors’ power to appoint senators from their own party. “Right now, there’s not a big concern.”
He did not, however, rule out making some kind of change in January. Massachusetts state Senate President Karen E. Spilka said that she had not spoken to House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo or her colleagues in the Senate about how the Legislature might deal with a vacancy in Warren’s seat.
“I think she would make a terrific vice president,” Spilka said. “I am very superstitious, so we’ll cross the bridge if we get to it.”
Globe staff reporter Victoria McGrane contributed to this story.