On an autumn Friday not long before the 2018 elections, Susan E. Rice was traveling through the Phoenix airport and watching from afar as Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh moved steadily toward confirmation. The convulsive Senate battle had reached a climax, and for Ms. Rice’s party an unhappy one: Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, had just announced her support for Justice Kavanaugh, effectively sealing his victory.
When a former White House colleague tweeted plaintively, asking who might take down Ms. Collins in the 2020 election, Ms. Rice fired off a two-letter reply: “Me.”
The message excited Ms. Rice’s followers, startled her friends and puzzled Democratic Party leaders, most of whom were surprised to learn the former national security adviser had any interest in electoral politics. Party strategists were already in the process of recruiting a challenger for Ms. Collins, and Ms. Rice had not been on their radar as an option. Though she had family roots in Maine, she did not even live in the state.
In public, Ms. Rice did little to clarify her intentions, and she made no overtures to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. When Ms. Rice announced several months later that she had decided against running for family reasons, most Democrats concluded she had never given it real consideration.
They were wrong: Before ruling out the race, Ms. Rice had quietly explored the idea of battling Ms. Collins for weeks, seeking advice from seasoned politicians in Maine, friendly operatives in Washington and top advisers to former President Barack Obama, including Valerie Jarrett and the pollster Joel Benenson. Within her political circle, the sincerity of her interest was clear.
In the end, Ms. Rice did not run. But her exploration of the race represented an emphatic declaration of new political aspirations. It was Ms. Rice’s first and only examination of what it would mean to become a candidate, and test the appeal of her formidable credentials not to her fellow experts but to voters for whom the National Security Council is a distant and obscure institution.
Ms. Rice, 55, is now among a handful of women under consideration to become Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s running mate. It is the latest stage in a path to power that has seen Ms. Rice chosen to be a Rhodes scholar at 21, an assistant secretary of state at 32 and ambassador to the United Nations little more than a decade later.
The questions that faced Ms. Rice in 2018 presaged, in some respects, those that now surround her as a vice-presidential contender: How much do voters prize government experience, or care about the international stage? Is the country ready, just years after seeming to reject elite expertise with the election of President Trump, to embrace a candidate defined chiefly as an analytical policy mind?
And how eager, after all, is Ms. Rice to emerge from the halls of Washington and plunge into the undignified melee of a national political campaign?
In 2018, at least, Ms. Jarrett said she believed Ms. Rice was “relishing the chance to actually run for office.”
“She loves a good battle,” Ms. Jarrett said, adding of Ms. Rice’s deliberations, “It wasn’t just talking to her friends and family. It was talking to people who would have advised her on the nuts and bolts of a campaign.”
‘A personal reckoning’
Ms. Rice’s electoral inexperience is not the only possible mark against her in the vice-presidential process: In an election dominated by a public-health disaster and economic recession, it is unclear how much a candidate best known for her foreign policy credentials would improve Mr. Biden’s chances. And there are people close to Mr. Biden who fear that choosing her would force the campaign to spend precious days relitigating her role in responding to the 2012 terror attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead and prompted months of Republican-led congressional hearings
While a galaxy of conspiracy theories about the attack have been discredited, Ms. Rice ended up taking the political fall for appearing on the Sunday shows to deliver a set of flawed administration talking points describing it as an outburst of spontaneous violence rather than organized terrorism. In her 2019 memoir, Ms. Rice wrote that the episode turned her “from being a respected if relatively low-profile cabinet official to a nationally notorious villain or heroine, depending on one’s political perspective.”
She would bring clear strengths to a ticket and administration, reinforcing Mr. Biden’s message of sober and seasoned leadership and appealing further to Americans who pine for the Obama years. While she and Mr. Biden have had policy disagreements over the years, they share a deeply held view of the importance of diplomacy and international institutions, a concern for promoting democracy and human rights and a common pride in Obama-era achievements that they helped shape, like the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Should Mr. Biden become president, few other potential vice presidents might be dispatched as easily on important missions around the world. Ms. Rice could confidently play that role, Mr. Benenson suggested, “while President Biden would do a lot of the repair, certainly in the early days of the administration, on the national stage.”
But hanging over everything is the question of Ms. Rice’s abilities as a campaigner. She would be the first person chosen for vice president without prior elected experience since 1972, when the Democratic ticket included R. Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps director and John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law — like Ms. Rice, a diplomat closely linked to a president sorely missed by his party.
Ms. Rice is up against multiple candidates who have run for president themselves, including Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, and others, like Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who have endured grueling statewide campaigns.
Allies of Ms. Rice have argued privately to Biden advisers that the learning curve for a first-time candidate might be smoother than normal given the strictures of a pandemic-era campaign. If a town-hall meeting or rally might be a relatively new setting for Ms. Rice, a television studio or webinar surely would not. They point, too, to the electoral inexperience on the opposing ticket: Ms. Rice, after all, has won exactly has many elections as Mr. Trump did before defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Ertharin Cousin, the former executive director of the United Nations World Food Program who is friends with Ms. Rice, said Ms. Rice had confided not long after Mr. Obama left office that she was intrigued by electoral politics, though she did not specify Maine as a venue. More recently, Ms. Cousin said, Ms. Rice had confirmed her interest in the vice presidency.
“She said to me: Joe Biden knows me and he knows my capabilities and if he thinks I’m right for him, then I’d be honored to serve with him, full stop,” Ms. Cousin said.
Ms. Cousin, who traveled with Ms. Rice in South Carolina during the 2008 presidential primary there, said that even then voters recognized her from her media appearances and connected with her as “a smart Black woman.” The country has few Black diplomats, Ms. Cousin noted, and voters rarely see them up close.
Still, Ms. Cousin allowed that becoming a national candidate was a daunting hurdle.
Even for people who have been deeply involved in presidential politics, Ms. Cousin said, “I think the experience for the candidate is quite different.”
In an interview, Ms. Rice said she was comfortable on the campaign trail, pointing to her activities for Mr. Obama. Without addressing the vice presidency explicitly, Ms. Rice said she remained interested in running for office. She left open the door to seeking a Senate seat in Washington, D.C., where she grew up and has spent most of her professional life, if the city were to achieve statehood.
Though not a Mainer herself, Ms. Rice’s family is closely tied to the state: Her maternal grandparents emigrated there from Jamaica in the early 20th century, her mother was raised in Maine, and all the men of that generation attended Bowdoin College. Ms. Rice’s mother, Lois Dickson Rice, who died in 2017, grew up in the state before graduating from Radcliffe College and settling down in Washington.
Exploring the race in Maine, Ms. Rice said she had come away convinced she understood the needs of the state. She had a clear sense of what it would have taken to beat Ms. Collins, a dogged campaigner long viewed in Maine as a careful moderate. Ms. Rice’s message, she said, would have been about Maine’s “real socioeconomic challenges,” like broadband access and providing health care to an aging population.
“It is true I have never run for office on my own behalf, but I’ve run for office on behalf of others,” Ms. Rice said in an interview from a vacation home in Maine’s Midcoast region. “If I were to decide to do it, there’s nothing about it that on its face would feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar.”
The decision not to run for Senate, she said, had been about “a personal reckoning” with not wanting to uproot her family in her daughter’s final years of high school.
“I would have, I think, been able to raise a formidable amount of money,” Ms. Rice said. “And this is a state that twice voted for Barack Obama, so Maine is capable of supporting people with his perspective and people who look like me.”
In her memoir, Ms. Rice revealed that as a 10-year-old girl growing up in Washington she had dreamed of one day becoming a senator. But she soon learned that her city lacked representation in Congress and, after spending summers on Capitol Hill, found herself put off by “many members’ unabashed egotism.”
In the same book, Ms. Rice expressed bluntly critical views of several senators who had thrown up strong resistance in 2012 to her possible nomination for secretary of state, effectively blocking her selection. She named one Republican senator as perhaps her most “disingenuous” adversary: Susan Collins.
Candor and caution
Ms. Rice declined to go into detail about the conversations she had about the Senate race. Several people who spoke to her at the time said they had stressed the great difficulty of winning office as an outsider in a state where newcomers are often described as being “from away.”
Among those cautionary voices was Tom Allen, a former Democratic congressman and mayor of Portland who ran against Ms. Collins in 2008. Mr. Allen, who said he had known Ms. Rice’s mother, called himself an admirer of the diplomat and said she had given no definitive signal about her level of interest in the race.
“When you make inquiries,” he said, “you’re always serious at some level.”
One person who did take Ms. Rice seriously was Ms. Collins, who just days after Ms. Rice’s tweet assailed her in a television interview as lacking even the basic credential of Maine residency. Two Republicans close to the Collins campaign said that the senator had been excited at the possibility of facing Ms. Rice, whose identification with the Benghazi attack and the Iran nuclear deal might have helped Ms. Collins soothe the discontent she has faced from conservatives who see her as inadequately loyal to Mr. Trump.
The president himself has often joined in those attacks on Ms. Rice over the years, most recently having accused her, without evidence, of having participated in a scurrilous Obama administration plot against Michael G. Flynn, the retired general and disgraced former national security adviser. Ms. Rice has denied being involved in any such effort against Mr. Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators in a case that is still in court.
In February 2019, Ms. Collins’s campaign took a poll and came away unimpressed by Ms. Rice’s standing: It found the senator leading her by 16 percentage points, 47 percent to 31 percent, people briefed on the data said. (“I’m glad she wasted money on it,” Ms. Rice said of the poll.)
In her overtures to Democrats, Ms. Rice relied on a network of contacts from her time in the Obama administration, conferring with Michael Cuzzi, a former strategist for Mr. Obama’s campaign in Maine. About a week after her tweet, she made an unadvertised appearance at a Rockport fund-raiser for Janet Mills, now the governor of Maine.
But Ms. Rice did not seek to court a swelling grass-roots movement, in Maine and Washington, that was mobilizing against Ms. Collins after her vote for Justice Kavanaugh. Other candidates were doing so, including Sara Gideon, the State House speaker, who would soon win support from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and build a grass-roots following online that helped her raise $9 million in just a few months this spring.
Ms. Rice eventually confirmed in April 2019, six months after her tweet, that she would not run for Senate. Some time after that, Ms. Rice said in an interview with The Portland Press-Herald that Maine “deserves senators who live there.”
Jim Mitchell, a Democratic lobbyist in Maine and former state party chair, said that there had been a swirl of excitement about Ms. Rice, but that few people in the state felt as if they could take her measure as a candidate.
“Retail politics still matters in a place like Maine, because there aren’t a lot of people,” he said. “I have no idea if the ambassador has those skills.”
Should the vice-presidential nomination go to another candidate, Ms. Rice would most likely be a top candidate for other offices in a Biden administration, perhaps including secretary of state.
There is at least, in theory, another job prospect on the horizon: senator from the newly admitted state of Washington, D.C. It is perhaps an unlikely prospect, but so, too, were the ideas of moving to Maine and toppling a tenacious local Republican, or ascending more or less directly from the National Security Council to the vice presidency. In June, the Democratic-controlled House voted in favor of statehood.
Ms. Rice, who in June wrote a New York Times Op-Ed column calling for an end to “the enduring oppression of the citizens of the District of Columbia,” said she might be open to an eventual Senate run there.
“I’m a huge champion of statehood for D.C.,” she said, “separate and apart from my own interests.”