SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Billionaires are the consistent villains in Bernie Sanders' campaign narrative. He rails against what he perceives as the undue influence their wealth wields and how that contributes to the yawning inequalities of American life.
His criticisms are unsparing, and his most recent target is Mike Bloomberg, a rival for the Democratic presidential nomination and one of the world's richest people.
But another billionaire in the race, Tom Steyer, has largely escaped Sanders' wrath. And perhaps with good reason: It could well be Steyer who helps propel Sanders to success in the crucial state of South Carolina.
Steyer's aggressive courtship of black voters in the state, coupled with tens of millions of dollars in advertising, has put him in a surprisingly strong position that could siphon support from former Vice President Joe Biden. That would create a lane for Sanders that undercuts Biden's case that South Carolina will be his electoral firewall.
Over the past few weeks, Steyer has largely had South Carolina to himself, as the most of the other candidates focused on New Hampshire and Nevada. Most of the field, including Biden and Sanders, attended a march and rally in Columbia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Sanders hasn’t returned since, and Biden made a brief, last-minute stop the night of the New Hampshire primary.
Early polls showed Biden with a commanding lead in South Carolina, particularly among the black voters who make up as much as two-thirds of its Democratic electorate. Biden also has compiled the most endorsements from black lawmakers and other officials.
Michael Bailey, a spokesman for the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina, said Biden’s stout presence may have led some campaigns to think they had no path to victory in the state.
“A lot of the other candidates assumed that Biden had it wrapped up, so we’re not going to put our resources there. We’re going to battle in other states and try to make up,” Bailey said.
But Sanders has had a presence in the state since his previous campaign in 2016: an existing infrastructure from Our Revolution, a super PAC that supports him, providing a ready-made organization. In late 2018, thousands turned out to see Sanders at Our Revolution’s “Medicare for All” rally in Columbia. Each month, the group schedules meetings and has a presence at events throughout the state.
Since launching his 2020 bid, Sanders has held campaign events in rarely visited, lower-income communities and, as many candidates have done, spoken in black churches on Sundays.
“What I’ve come to understand is that he's someone who fights social injustice,” said state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, an African American legislator who is backing Sanders. “And fighting for social injustices is in the DNA of African Americans. … My mama said a long time ago, ‘real’ crosses all barriers.”
Sanders is also getting help from an unexpected source: Republicans. Last month, a group of GOP leaders from South Carolina's upstate region announced a push to encourage fellow Republicans to cross over and support Sanders in the Democratic primary. It was an effort to boost the candidate they see as the weakest general election matchup with President Donald Trump.
But Sanders’ biggest help may be Steyer's money. He has spent more than $60 million on ads in the state and has doled out more than $300,000 to support Democratic Parties at the state and county levels, according to his campaign, and has also forged inroads particularly in the black community. On Monday, a fifth member of the Legislative Black Caucus officially endorsed Steyer. Two others, including the caucus chair, are on his campaign’s payroll as senior advisers.
Some of that support, said one longtime state lawmaker, can be seen as cutting into Biden’s appeal to moderate black voters, a move that could be making room for Sanders’ more progressive backers.
“I think that he's creating space for others and narrowing the lane,” said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, an unaffiliated member of South Carolina’s Legislative Black Caucus. "Tom Steyer has the willingness to reach out to minority voters in ways that other candidates can't or haven't."
For Bailey, Steyer’s candidacy was garnering more support than just from disaffected Biden supporters.
“I don’t think it’s just that he’s taking votes away from the vice president — he’s taking votes from everybody, and he’s bringing new voters to the polls," he said.
Some of Steyer’s efforts have been unconventional. His wife, Kat Taylor, recently rented a home in Columbia, where she has hosted several open houses and plans to use as an East Coast base of operations as long as her husband is in the presidential race.
“I've said from the beginning, if you want to be a Democratic candidate for president, you've got to appeal to everybody across the country, and you've got to appeal to the diverse Democratic Party coalition,” Steyer said after a campaign block party earlier this month in Winnsboro, a small, central South Carolina town. “South Carolina has a big African American population, it's a critical state, and so it's really important to anybody who cares about the Democratic Party and wants to represent this party.”
But part of the appeal, said both Malloy and Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is also issue-based, in no small part because of Steyer’s repeated mentions of his support both for reparations and for funding for historically black colleges and universities. For Steele, Steyer's motivation to take on such topics seemed to be driven by a force more powerful than politics.
"To hear Mr. Steyer talk about HBCUs, and to talk about reparations, is something that's divinely said, that came from heaven,” said Steele, who says he isn’t officially endorsing Steyer but has appeared on the campaign trail with him in South Carolina. “He didn't say that from flesh and blood because many people run from that issue.”
With less than two weeks until the primary, voters are taking note. Waiting on Steyer at an environmental justice event on Monday, Malina Butler, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of South Carolina-Upstate, said she had initially been a supporter of Sanders, whose candidacy she saw as exciting, but without the substance she wants.
"I like the crowd and hype, but at the end of the day, I still need to know who you are," Butler said.
Told about Steyer by her mother, who is “all in” for his candidacy, Butler said she wasn’t really interested in Biden, saying it wasn’t enough just to have served with President Barack Obama.
“People my age, they like him because he was with Obama, and I feel like that's not really saying much,” she said.
Johnnie Cordero, the chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina and a Steyer supporter, said this week that what he sees as Steyer’s momentum shows that candidates shouldn’t be taking any support for granted.
“Anybody who comes into South Carolina thinking that they have the vote is in for a rude awakening — and we know who that refers to,” he said.
Associated Press writer Tom Foreman Jr. contributed to this report from Columbia, S.C.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”