Stacey Abrams just announced that she won’t be running for President, but that she will be open to being the running mate. She had been talked about as a national contender for a while, which shows how the sense of what makes someone qualified to run for national office has changed.
There had been a question on the left about why Beto O’Rourke was encouraged to run for President as a losing candidate for the US Senate, when Stacey Abrams wasn’t encouraged to do the same (to the same extent at least) with a narrower loss for statewide office in a conservative state. There were similar questions with Gillum, although he’s under investigation, so it’s quieter. The implication is that O’Rourke benefits by being a white guy.
O’Rourke’s loss was more impressive as he ran in a more conservative state, and lost to an incumbent with national name ID. So there’s the first argument.
She’s a state legislator, and there isn’t much precedent for state legislators as national figures without first getting into Congress or statewide office.
It would be a different story had she been in Congress, been mayor of Atlanta, or been a cabinet member. If Susan Rice had gotten the same results, she could be a presidential contender as a former UN Ambassador. But Abrams’ experience prior to the gubernatorial bid isn’t enough. O’Rourke’s experience as a congressional backbencher is on the low end for qualifications, but enough.
Abrams’ background is a few steps removed from national consideration. State legislators typically get elected to the House of Representatives, or to some kind of minor statewide office. Sometimes an exceptional legislator goes directly to Governor or Senator. But you don’t go from state legislator directly to a presidential cabinet, let alone the presidency. In 2008, no one was talking about Marco Rubio as a contender for national office, even though he was the leader of a state legislative body. Abrams did have the benefit of getting a lot of publicity from her gubernatorial bid.
Garret Hobart is the only state legislator elected to national office without serving in Congress or statewide office, as William McKinley’s running mate. He’s on the low end in terms of experience on the national ticket, but he was the head of two state legislative bodies, as Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly from 1874-1876, and Senate Majority Leader from 1881-1882. He was a prominent lawyer, and major figure in the RNC, rising to be Vice Chairman, and he had just managed a successful campaign for Governor on behalf of his former State Assembly/ State Senate colleague John W. Griggs, who would go on to serve as Attorney General in the McKinley/ Hobart administration after Joseph McKenna was appointed to the Supreme Court.
There have been presidential candidates who parlayed losing bids for statewide office into presidential campaigns, notably Abraham Lincoln and William Jennings Bryan, although both had served in Congress. In 1940, Tom Dewey was seen as a major contender after losing a race for Governor of New York, but he had been an immensely successful prosecutor, and the Republican bench was pretty weak after drubbings during the Great Depression.
Democrats have a much better bench, although it’s still a race where a small-city mayor is a major figure, the result of a combination of a media environment that allows obscure candidates to spread their message, and unusual situations. Buttigieg represents a major first as an openly gay man, which helps in fundraising. He comes from the state of the Vice President, which allows him to get publicity criticizing Republicans. The Republican president is seen as dim-witted, old and shameless, whereas Buttigieg is a younger Rhodes scholar who served admirably as a naval intelligence officer.
On the flipside, Buttigieg has stalled in the single digits and the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination has more than forty years experience in major office. This is largely due to circumstances beyond his control. Biden has a lot of support among African-American voters due to his work in the Obama administration, sat out the 2016 primary for the most understandable reason possible (his son died) and comes from a politically useful region of the country. If he were born in Seattle and served as Senator from Oregon, he probably wouldn’t be doing as well in polls. But he was born in Scranton after an election in which Republicans dominated the rust belt. If things were a little different, he might be losing to O’Rourke or Buttigieg.
Abrams, Buttigieg and O’Rourke all have more experience in elected office and waging statewide campaigns than the man in the White House. We’re probably going to see more candidates with unconventional resumes run for office. And eventually some of them will win.