Tammy Duckworth bursts into VP contention

Tammy Duckworth bursts into VP contentionJuly 12, 2020

CHICAGO — Tammy Duckworth is no longer an afterthought in the Democratic veepstakes.

The Illinois senator and Purple Heart recipient has landed squarely in the conversation after a high-profile clash with Tucker Carlson last week and her advocacy against politicization of the military in the weeks prior.

The attention hasn’t escaped Biden’s vetting team. It has stepped up information-gathering on Duckworth recently, scrutinizing her legislative record and talking to her colleagues, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

A contingent of Duckworth-for-VP backers, including high-dollar donors and a politically active veterans group, has intensified efforts on her behalf in the past two weeks, pushing her as the best choice for Biden’s running mate.

“I’ve been working my rear end off, trying to get Joe to look at her favorably,” Joe Cotchett, a longtime friend of Biden’s and prominent West Coast Biden bundler, told POLITICO. Cotchett said Duckworth’s no-nonsense response to Carlson has further elevated her prospects.

“If you put Tammy Duckworth on the ballot, a lot of veterans are saying to me, ‘Boy, she represents not only the Midwest but she represents what our party is all about,’” Cotchett said. “Having no legs, to me, is an attribute in this insane election year. It brings to the table a veteran who has been severely wounded that’s speaking out for women and veterans and showing that she’s someone who can take on ‘Cadet Bone Spurs.’”

The tit-for-tat with Carlson last week started when the Fox News host called Duckworth — an Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs fighting in Iraq — “a coward” and “a fraud” who hates America. He was reacting to Duckworth saying she welcomed a “national dialogue” on removing statues of George Washington and other Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Duckworth later clarified that she personally opposes taking down statues of Washington but supports an open discussion.

Duckworth, who uses prosthetics, shot back by challenging Carlson to “walk a mile in my legs.”

Google searches for “Duckworth” skyrocketed and cable news channels built segments around the Carlson-Duckworth clash. Democratic officials including Biden jumped to her defense. The week ended with Duckworth penning an op-ed in The New York Times charging that neither President Donald Trump nor Carlson knows what patriotism is.

“Attacks from self-serving, insecure men who can’t tell the difference between true patriotism and hateful nationalism will never diminish my love for this country — or my willingness to sacrifice for it so they don’t have to,” Duckworth wrote. “These titanium legs don’t buckle.”

Biden has said he expects to announce his VP pick next month, and Duckworth is among several contenders who’s had a moment in the spotlight. Others being vetted include Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Reps. Val Demings of Florida and Karen Bass of California and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

Though Duckworth is Thai-American, Biden is under pressure to choose an African American woman, both to reward a constituency that powered his victory in the primary and as recognition of the reckoning on race the country is going through. Progressive groups, meantime, have backed Warren, arguing she would help excite the left flank of the party.

Ideologically, Duckworth is mostly aligned with the majority of the Senate Democratic caucus. She has supported progressive causes like paid leave but hasn’t signed on to “Medicare for All,” instead backing Medicare expansion plans closer to Biden’s health care proposal.

Duckworth’s diverse background, impeccable military credentials and attack dog ability have caught the attention of a group of Democratic donors. She is both a daughter of an immigrant mother and a Daughter of the American Revolution. She’s well-versed in military policy and known for advocating women’s issues. She was the first female senator to give birth while she held office and, in an iconic moment, brought her baby daughter onto the Senate floor. She also pushed for nursing stations in public places like airports.

But even supporters say she’s not as polished as some of the other candidates for vice president. And they say they expect Republicans would attempt to exploit the fact that Duckworth was born in Bangkok, where her father was stationed as a Department of Defense employee.

Susie Buell, a prominent Democratic megadonor, is among those firmly in Duckworth’s camp. Buell backed her home-state senator Harris for president during the primary, but called Duckworth her top pick for vice president.

“I think Tammy is amazing and she would be a great choice,” Buell said. “She certainly has shown her devotion and commitment to country. She is indisputably experienced and prepared. Who could not get behind her?”

John Atkinson, a longtime fundraiser for Duckworth, described a “fury” of recent interest in the senator’s prospects for vice president.

“As this thing gets closer to the selection and as Sen. Duckworth’s profile gets elevated, there’s a lot of excitement among donors,” Atkinson said. “Universally it’s, ‘She’d be fantastic for the ticket. She’d be great.’ The common theme is that as Trump continues to try and politicize our military or wrap himself in the flag to suit his political fortunes, or to attack the Constitution she fought to protect, Tammy is in a unique position to challenge him aggressively and authentically.”

Duckworth’s emergence in the VP discussion began before her clash with Carlson. She blasted Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for standing beside Trump after protesters were removed from Lafayette Square to make way for the president’s photo-op. Milley personally called Duckworth to apologize.

Vote Vets, which promotes progressive candidates for office, is pushing hard for Duckworth to be named Biden’s running mate.

“She’ll be a great partner on the campaign trail,” a narrator says in a video entitled “Duckworth is Ready.” “Mike Pence won’t know what hit him.”

Last week, the group released a video dubbed “Tough as Hell” declaring that Trump was scared of facing Duckworth as a running mate. It closed with the narrator saying, “You boys took on the wrong war hero,” and flashes to a 2011 image of Carlson performing on “Dancing with the Stars.

The Trump campaign said Duckworth would have a hard time defending Biden’s record on defense issues and foreign affairs, which a spokeswoman portrayed as weak, against the president’s investments in the military.

VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz said the group will step up its advocacy for Duckworth as Biden nears his decision. Soltz argued that Duckworth’s personal qualities are in line with Biden’s but that she also has demonstrated an ability to appeal to swing voters. He cited her outperforming Hillary Clinton in more conservative Illinois counties in 2016.

“Tammy Duckworth is loyal. She did not attack Joe Biden” during the presidential primary, Soltz said. “Tammy has a very good relationship with Joe Biden and has had a relationship with him for many years.”

Duckworth worked as assistant secretary of veterans affairs in the Obama White House. In that time, she, along with Jill and Joe Biden, took part in official events supporting military families. In 2008, Duckworth introduced Biden’s late son Beau at the Democratic National Convention.

“Here’s the thing about Tammy: She is a perfect biographical candidate. And she wears that biography on her sleeve and it’s really, really difficult to attack her because of it,” said former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), whom Duckworth ousted from office in 2012. Walsh said that while Duckworth has become a more well-rounded politician since their race, back then her heroic war story made her just about untouchable.

“Every other word out of her mouth was about her service,” Walsh said. “That bugged me because I couldn’t find a way to attack her. And so I ended up putting my foot in my mouth a few times.”

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