Military service, inspirational backstory make Sen. Tammy Duckworth a 'safe' choice for Biden's VP

Key Points
  • Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is reportedly in the running to become presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden's vice presidential pick.
  • Duckworth is a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient who is also the first-ever Thai American woman elected to Congress.
  • Experts have called her a "safe" choice for Biden, but some aren't convinced that she's the right pick in a political landscape that has been suddenly altered by the death of George Floyd.
Senator Tammy Duckworth(D-IL), speaks following the Senate voted on the War Powers resolution, at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on February 13, 2020.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

Joe Biden's promise to pick a female running mate has hardly helped him narrow the field: At least a dozen women are currently under consideration for the No. 2 spot on the presumptive Democratic nominee's ticket.

Reportedly among them is Sen. Tammy Duckworth, the junior senator from Illinois and a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot.

On MSNBC last month, Duckworth signaled she would accept the job if offered. "I personally have always answered the call when my country has asked me to serve," she said when asked if Biden's campaign had reached out.

Duckworth, 52, has a military background and an inspiring path into politics, both of which could be assets to Biden's campaign. She is a Purple Heart recipient who overcame a grievous combat wound – she lost both of her legs in Iraq when her helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade – to become the first-ever Thai American woman elected to Congress. 

She's also been a fierce critic of President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic

But while many experts have been quick to label her a "safe" choice for Biden, some aren't convinced that she's the right pick in a political landscape that has been suddenly altered by the death of an unarmed black man in police custody.

Marj Halperin, an Illinois-based Democratic analyst, told CNBC in a phone interview that while Duckworth has been "terrific" for her state, "she sits politically in much the same space" as Biden.

"I think if you're looking for a woman to relate to family issues, to relate to the inequities that have sent people of all demographics into the street demanding change, she's responsive," Halperin said, "but I think you will find other candidates who are more of a leader in that regard."

US Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) wearing a mask to protect herself and others from COVID-19, known as coronavirus, arrives for a vote at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, May 4, 2020.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

A terrible injury and a career in service

Duckworth is known as a tough competitor. She described the initial pain from her injuries in Iraq as "nonstop, unrelenting, seemingly endless agony." But less than two years later in 2006, Duckworth launched her first campaign for Congress in Illinois' 6th District. 

She narrowly lost to Republican Peter Roskam. But she was quickly tapped by then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, to lead the state's Veterans Affairs Department, and later became the federal VA's assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs under former President Barack Obama.

She resigned from that post in 2011 to launch her second House bid, unseating Republican incumbent Joe Walsh, who became the subject of controversy when he criticized Duckworth for talking too much about her military service. "Our true heroes, the men and women who served us, it's the last thing in the world they talk about," said Walsh, who later walked back the remarks. 

Duckworth in 2016 won her Senate race against GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, who was roundly criticized after bringing up her heritage in a televised debate. "I'd forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington," Kirk had said. 

Here are some key biographical details:

  • Duckworth was born in Bangkok to a Thai mother and an American father, who was also a U.S. Army veteran.
  • In 2018, after a challenging pregnancy, Duckworth at 50 became the first U.S. senator to have a baby while in office. 
  • Government records watchdog site OpenSecrets estimated Duckworth's net worth at $697,531 in 2018, placing her 63rd in the Senate.

In Congress, Duckworth has made veterans a central focus.

Trump in January 2019 signed the Veterans Small Business Enhancement Act, which Duckworth sponsored with senior Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. The bill was aimed at increasing entrepreneurial opportunities for veterans, in part by making them eligible to receive federal surplus personal property.

Duckworth passed three of her proposed bills into law as a freshman senator, earning her plaudits from the bipartisan Center for Effective Lawmaking – in contrast to a stinging Chicago Tribune investigation in 2016, which found that her tenure in the House yielded few legislative successes.

Trump in April added Duckworth, a member of the Senate Small Business Committee, to a bipartisan task force focused on reopening the economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. The task force included 12 other Democratic senators and every Republican senator, except Mitt Romney of Utah – who had voted to convict Trump on articles of impeachment. Trump was acquitted in February by the GOP-led chamber.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) participates in a reenacted swearing-in with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Aaron P. Bernstein | Getty Images

Tough competition

Biden's campaign has kept a tight lid on the vice presidential selection process, but a few names have dominated the conversation

California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose own 2020 presidential bid started strong but fizzled, is currently the leader on political betting site PredictIt to clinch the VP spot. She's 22 years younger than the 77-year old Biden, but is seen as having the experience to take the reins if needed. Moe Vela, who had served under Vice Presidents Biden and Al Gore when they were in office, told CNBC that he believes Biden's top priority is finding someone who's ready to immediately step into the role of president.

Florida Rep. Val Demings, the No. 2 candidate in the PredictIt rankings, could move the ball forward for Biden in Florida, an important swing state that Trump won over Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

Duckworth's price on the political betting site currently sits at 5 cents – a figure that "strikes me as much too low," said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Harris is currently 44 cents, and Demings is at 18 cents.

"There are a lot of compelling reasons" to pick Duckworth, Gaines said.

A decision is unlikely to come before August. Historically, presidential nominees have locked down their running mates a median of four days before their conventions begin, according to FiveThirtyEight. The Democratic convention was rescheduled to mid-August from July due to the pandemic.

The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

A Duckworth spokesman declined to comment and referred CNBC to the Illinois senator's prior remarks about the Biden campaign.

Biden has seen increasing pressure to put a black woman on his ticket amid the massive protests over George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes. Harris and Demings are black.

"If there's something about Duckworth that's a real drawback, I suppose it could be that for some subset of the voters right now, given the particular focus on racial justice they might think, 'We really don't just want a nonwhite candidate, we want an African American woman running with him,'" Gaines said.

Duckworth, while less vocal about her legislative work on policing than on veterans' issues, this week co-sponsored the broad police accountability and reform bill introduced in the Senate, along with 34 other Democrats. Duckworth had previously sponsored a bill to enforce diversity training within law enforcement.

'Heart and empathy'

Biden, meanwhile, has pulled further ahead of Trump in the polls in the past few weeks, as both men respond to the ongoing protest movement in starkly different ways. Trump has reacted aggressively, demanding "law and order" from state and city leaders to quash the violence that has sprung up at some demonstrations, while Biden has vowed to work to heal the country's racial wounds that undergird the unrest.

With his lead in the polls widening, some argue that Biden should play it safe by selecting Duckworth, rather than a more polarizing figure, such as progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who might alienate some moderate Democrats and on-the-fence Republicans.

But Halperin said that "when you look at the national dynamic today, there's great and reasonable pressure for an African American, and from where I sit, I hope [Biden] will listen to that."

Biden has said that the protests haven't changed his decision-making process in finding a vice president. "It's put a greater focus and urgency on the need to get someone who is totally simpatico with where I am," Biden told CBS News on Tuesday.

Vela, who says he has several friends on Biden's vice president vetting team, told CNBC that in such an impassioned political moment, he thinks a candidate's specific policy goals will take a backseat to their character.

"I think now it's about, who can add to this ticket and be a partner in unifying the nation?" Vela said. "And that's not so much about politics. That's more about heart and empathy and inspiration and leading."