WASHINGTON — Speculation about the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee is heating up — and a Florida lawmaker is at the center of the national conversation.
After only two terms in federal office, U.S. Rep. Val Demings is among those who are being mentioned as possible running mates to former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in the race for his party’s presidential nod.
Demings, an Orlando Democrat, shot onto the national scene last fall, when she played a key role in the U.S. House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump as a member of both the House Judiciary and Intelligence panels. Her star rose higher in January when she was selected as one of seven managers of the Senate impeachment trial.
Now, she’s in the center of discussions about how her party can diversify a ticket with an older white man almost certain to be at its top.
“Val would be on the list you have to look at as top-level Democratic women of color,” said Keith Fitzgerald, a professor of political science at the New College of Florida.
Demings — who endorsed Biden last week — told the Phoenix she is honored to be mentioned and said she backs calls for a woman of color in the role of vice president. We often hear that black women are the “backbone” of the Democratic Party, she said in a phone interview. “I think that the diversity we celebrate should be reflected on a ticket at the top of the ballot.”
The prospect of a Demings vice presidency excites Florida Democrats like Reps. Lois Frankel and Kathy Castor.
“There should be a black woman on the ticket,” Frankel told the Phoenix, adding: “They should not be hidden figures,” a reference to the movie about the black women who worked as “human computers” at NASA in the 1960s. She said she’s partial to Demings, “our home girl.”
Castor also raved about Demings in an interview, calling her “a credit to the state of Florida.”
‘A debt to repay’
Two women have been named as vice presidential nominees on major party tickets in U.S. history: Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008.
Calls for a third female vice presidential nominee on a major party ticket have mounted as the once diverse Democratic field has narrowed down to two septuagenarian white men: Biden, 77, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is in the running but has little chance of winning.
Biden is under some pressure to nominate a black woman, given the role black voters played in turning around his moribund campaign, Fitzgerald said. “I think Biden has a debt to repay.”
Black women also vote in higher numbers than black men and have a history of swinging election outcomes in favor of Democrats, said Sharon Wright Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
She pointed to the 2017 Senate race in Alabama, when black women turned out in especially high numbers to help Democrat Doug Jones defeat Roy Moore, a Republican accused of sexual misconduct.
Other big names being bandied about include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California; Stacey Abrams, a former state lawmaker from Georgia; and former national security adviser Susan Rice.
Other women of color are also being mentioned, such as New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham; Sens. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Catherine Cortez Maso of Nevada. Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Barbara Lee of California, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Deb Haaland of New Mexico have also been mentioned.
Also in the mix are white women, such as Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, both of whom were Democratic presidential candidates and recently dropped out of the race.
One plus for Demings: She could help swing her vote-rich home state — a battleground in the general election — toward the Democrats, Fitzgerald said.
Vice presidential candidates typically have little to no effect on election outcomes in their home states, according to Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida.
But this year could be different, given that Biden and Sanders are seen as less likely to seek a second term, or perhaps even fill out a first term, Fitzgerald said. This year’s vice president is essentially “a president in training,” he said. As such, “a dynamic black woman on the ballot could make just enough of a difference to bring the state over,” he said.
Frankel agreed, saying a Demings nomination “would excite the Democrats in Florida a lot.”
Also on the plus side: Demings, 63, has a compelling life story and isn’t associated with controversy, Wright Austin said. She rose out of poverty, pursued a career in law enforcement and served as Orlando’s first female chief of police before winning office in 2016. That’s a “combination you don’t see every day,” Fitzgerald said.
In the negative column is her relative lack of name recognition, Wright Austin said. Even if she could help win Florida, it’s unclear whether she has the star power to energize voters in other key battleground states, like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, she said.
But Demings brushed off questions about name recognition. “I’m very well known throughout the state,” she said. “Why? Because I worked my butt off.”