After weeks of discussing Tom Kaine, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Perez and Sherrod Brown, a familiar Iowa name emerged in the vice president nominee debate for Democrats: Tom Vilsack. The current Secretary of Agriculture and former two-term Iowa Governor has reportedly been vetted by Clinton’s team.
Those of us in Iowa understand why he’s still in the mix. Vilsack comes with an inspiring biography – placed in a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh, he was adopted and grew up in Pennsylvania before working his way through law school. His wife, Christie, took him back with her to Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where he worked as a small-town attorney. He became mayor after the current one was shot and killed in a city council meeting, was later elected to the Iowa State Senate, and then pulled off a major upset in his win for governor in 1998.
He’s also seen as an extremely competent, policy-oriented public servant with a big heart and a deep concern for public education. Vilsack would come with barely any controversies and is essentially guaranteed to not make any of his own during a campaign. Plus he has a long history of trust with the Clintons.
So would Hillary Clinton really pick Vilsack as her Vice President? It all depends on what she’s looking to get out of her running mate. Here’s several scenarios she might be thinking of and how Vilsack fits into them:
A Partner In Governing
The Clintons and Vilsacks’ relationship goes all the way back to 1972. Hillary campaigned for Vilsack in his first gubernatorial run. She’s comfortable with him and trusts him. They’re both policy wonks and his style represents the type of way it seems she wants to govern. If Clinton is looking for less of a running mate and more of a partner in the Oval Office, Vilsack is by far and away the front-runner.
This would also indicate that Clinton is relatively confident about her ability to win in November by looking more ahead to governing.
There’s also a good number of up-and-coming Democratic leaders that will likely run in 2024. But none of them are the clear, consensus person for the future. So perhaps Clinton wouldn’t want to nominate someone who would essentially be her chosen successor.
Swing State Focus
Two of Clinton’s top targeted states are Iowa and Pennsylvania. The latter has become a worrying concern for Democrats this year – Republicans never get that close to capturing it, but Trump’s trade talk and appeal to populism could run up his margins in working-class western Pennsylvania. One of Clinton’s largest organizing teams is in the state for this reason.
Vilsack could help boost Clinton’s margins in both states. He has the sort of “regular guy” appeal, whose hard work advanced him in politics instead of family or big-money connections. His background could have an appeal to white working-class men that are abandoning Clinton in traditionally Democratic areas in both states. His Pennsylvania roots in Pittsburgh, right where Trump may over-perform most, could bring many Democratic-learning voters back to the fold.
His help in Iowa would be obvious. We haven’t had an Iowan on the ticket since Henry Wallace. Though it’s also an open question to how much the Vilsack name still influences swing voters here – Vilsack’s own presidential run ended quickly, he went all-in for Clinton in 2008 only to see her come in third and Christie Vilsack failed by a wide margin in her run for office against Steve King. Still, Vilsack would clearly help in Iowa, perhaps especially in his white, working-class, union-heavy corner of Southeast Iowa.
Even if those are the only states Vilsack helps in, it would be a worthwhile pick.
Safe Choice That Also Doesn’t Impact The Senate
With the extreme volatility of 2016, Clinton may not want to add any more variables into the mix. A straight-up contrast with Trump is the best option. Elizabeth Warren could bring in a lot of disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters – but it could also turn off suburban, moderate business types who hate Trump, but who see her as too far to the left on economic issues.
And the biggest problem for many of Clinton’s potential picks is that it could mean losing a vote in the Senate thanks to a Republican governor appointing the replacement. So Vilsack would be safe on the procedural side and also a safe pick on the politics side – no one is going to say he’s unqualified or offensive to a group of voters Clinton is looking to pick up.
Moving A Major Demographic Group
This would be the biggest problem for Vilsack’s chances. Tom Vilsack appeals to a very specific demographic group: people already voting for Hillary Clinton. He might bring in some white working-class people in Iowa and Pennsylvania where there’s a personal connection to start from, but he might lack the dynamic edge to get those groups in other states
And he doesn’t bring anything to encourage young Sanders progressives to choose Clinton over a third party option. In fact, Vilsack would likely give them a few more reasons to bash the Democratic ticket. As the former Governor of Iowa and Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack has been criticized for a close relationship with big agribusiness. No doubt progressives would pillory him as a Monsanto shill. Plus he’s been a major cheerleader for TPP considering its impact on the country’s agriculture.
There’s also that incident from 2010 with a black Secretary of Agriculture employee many forget about. The USDA quickly fired a black woman as the director of Georgia’s rural development office after conservative writer Andrew Breitbach published a heavily-edited video of her at a NAACP event, making it look she had made racists comments – she didn’t. Vilsack apologized for the firing, and with the current racial tensions in today’s politics, it could easily come back up. There are other choices, like Tim Kaine, who speaks Spanish, Julian Castro or Cory Booker who could better motivate young people of color to turn out for Clinton.
So which scenario is Clinton’s mind at? My guess it’s one of the first three, all of which puts Tom Vilsack in a great position to be on the Democrats’ ticket.
by Pat Rynard