South Carolina at the center of 2020 Democratic prospects

Primary is gateway to Super Tuesday

By ELIZABETH LANDERS AND CAROLINE KENNY, CNN
Mandel Ngan/Zach Gibson/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images via CNN

Some of the biggest names in Democratic politics are descending on South Carolina in the final weeks of the midterms, introducing themselves to voters and operatives in a state that will be crucial in the party's 2020 presidential primary.

(CNN) - Some of the biggest names in Democratic politics are descending on South Carolina in the final weeks of the midterms, introducing themselves to voters and operatives in a state that will be crucial in the party's 2020 presidential primary.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, attorney Michael Avenatti, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have already or are expected to visit the Palmetto State in the home stretch of the 2018 election.

Several of the big names are appearing alongside South Carolina's 2018 Democratic candidates such as gubernatorial nominee James Smith and 1st Congressional District candidate Joe Cunningham. Biden, Bullock and Buttigieg each did events with the men this past weekend. Booker and Harris will be revving up the base while speaking at GOTV rallies up and down the state, and Bloomberg is headlining a fundraiser for incumbent Rep. Jim Clyburn -- the only Democrat in South Carolina's congressional delegation.

The early attention South Carolina is receiving from potential 2020 Democratic candidate shows the important role the state plays in the party's nominating contest. While Iowa and New Hampshire lay claim to being the first in the nation contests, South Carolina is the first state where Democratic candidates will test their appeal with African-American voters, a key voting bloc to winning the nomination.

Due the primary schedule, the South Carolina primary is the last one to take place before Super Tuesday on March 3, when nine states will hold their primaries. The winner in South Carolina could take their momentum into those contests.

A range of Democrats in the state told CNN they are torn by all the early attention the state is getting from national figures. On the one hand, they say, the visits are driving excitement and turnout among the party faithful. On the other, having state candidates tied to the typically more liberal Democrats on the national stage opens those candidates up to attack from their Republican opponents.

"Usually we are second fiddle and it seems like this year we may be getting more active early on than Iowa and New Hampshire just due to the schedule of the primaries," said former state Democratic representative Boyd Brown. "Whoever wins South Carolina, that's an indicator of who wins Super Tuesday."

"Some of us wish it would wait. We don't need our candidates tied to Bernie Sanders in October before an election," Brown said, but added that Democrats in the state are energized for the midterms in a way that he hasn't seen before.

Amanda Loveday, the former executive director of the state party, also pointed to Sanders coming down to South Carolina for a solo event, this close to the midterms, as an unwise move.

"I definitely think he has supporters, but I don't think that right now is a good time for him to be traveling to South Carolina specifically because he wasn't invited by a candidate who is running on a 2018 ballot," Loveday said.

Sanders will be in speaking at a rally in Columbia on Saturday hosted by Our Revolution as part of a nine-state tour ahead of the midterms. South Carolina is the only state on Sanders' tour where he won't be appearing alongside a candidate running in the midterms. Palmetto State Democrats like Brown and Loveday quickly expressed their frustration at Sanders' decision to come without taking the stage alongside a Democrat running for office this cycle.

When Sanders' visit was announced, South Carolina Republicans and Smith's opponent, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, immediately started tying Smith to Sanders and said the two would be campaigning together, even though that is not what will be happening. Smith has been attempting to distance himself from Sanders, explaining that he does not support the Independent senator from Vermont's agenda.

State representative and attorney Justin Bamberg -- who backed Sanders in 2016 and is up for re-election this November -- pointed out that some of Bernie's key ideas, like his Medicare for All Act, also got the backing of Sens. Booker, Warren and Harris.

"Why is everyone so afraid of Bernie Sanders?" he posed, adding that "I think people are missing the point here that one of the big reasons that Bernie is coming to South Carolina is to talk about his concept of healthcare, and that's not coming up enough in the conversation. Everyone wants to make it about presidential candidates."

He said that his fellow Democrats who were worried about being tied to a presidential candidate are "being paranoid. Citizens are going to choose who they want to choose."

 

Why right now?

 

Getting a grasp for South Carolina early on is crucial for any and all prospective presidential candidates, Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said.

"I think it's good if these 2020 candidates come before November 6th if they have the right intentions, which include turning out voters for the midterm elections and understanding how politics are done in South Carolina," Seawright told CNN in a phone interview. "I think how politics is done in South Carolina is a true reflection of where we need to be as a country. So goes the south, so goes the heartbeat of America."

"On the road to the White House and heaven, there is an exit that says South Carolina -- must stop here if you want to be president," Seawright added.

Trav Robertson, the current chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, thinks the surge of national politicians coming to South Carolina is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Robertson cited costs of Medicaid, local corruption, and expensive power bills as top issues for his base in the midterms elections that are just a few weeks away.

"Everybody pays a power bill, everybody has got somebody that's sick, and we are all touched by the corruption in this state. If Bernie wants to come talk about those issues and Nina Turner and get national attention on that fact...if they want to come down here and talk about those issues, by God let's get them down here to talk about them," Robertson told CNN.

He said that the Trump presidency has forced politics into a "different environment" than he's seen in past election cycles. Robertson sees visits from top national politicians as a way to motivate his base and get out the vote efforts.

While the number of prospective candidates may be staggering, former state party chairman Jaime Harrison says South Carolina maintains an open-door policy, welcoming any and all who are thinking about taking a stab at a run.

"I think that the doors to South Carolina are open to all. The thing I've told all the candidates who've reached out to me is that we are here to help," Harrison said. "They should definitely come and visit and talk with our voters here and learn more about the state. I think that's an important step for all of them to do."

 

Joe Biden's close ties to South Carolina

 

One potential candidate who doesn't need an introduction to South Carolina is former Vice President Biden, who maintains close connections to Palmetto State politics.

Biden has been to South Carolina twice over the last year, most recently this past weekend, where he headlined a Charleston fundraiser for his friend, Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Smith. Biden and Smith's relationship goes back several years, since Smith and Biden's late son Beau served overseas in the military during overlapping time periods in 2009.

Some Democratic operatives in the state believe that, regardless if Smith wins or loses this November, his organization of supporter lists, donors and staffers can easily be turned over to a Biden presidential campaign and give the former vice president a leg up going into 2020.

During a stop for breakfast alongside Smith in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, on Saturday, Biden told a crowd of reporters that he isn't running for president just yet.

"No, not yet. And I don't know whether I will or not," Biden said.

Dick Harpootlian, a longtime South Carolina Democratic official who is now running for a state Senate seat in November, hosted Biden this weekend for an event at his home in Columbia.

Harpootlian described a crowd of about 100 people who gathered to hear him spread a message that working families are hurting. Biden also taped a commercial with Harpootlian to help with his race.

He thought that the 2020 race may be starting "a little early" this cycle but pointed out that he had met then-Sen. Barack Obama for the first time in April 2007.

"The primary process is starting two years ahead of time. Yeah, they come in early because they don't have any money or name recognition," he said of the upcoming Cory Booker and Kamala Harris visits.

Harpootlian also warned that candidates like Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will likely not sell well in the southern state.

"If Biden decides to run it will be very difficult for anyone to compete with him here."

There's also the sentiment among South Carolina Democrats that Biden can appeal to a wider range of voters in the state ahead of the midterms and beyond.

"The only one who can come down and not hurt a [down-ballot] candidate is Joe Biden," Brown said.

But not all Palmetto State Democrats are thinking it's Biden or bust.

"There are some rising stars making trips down, people like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and Eric Holder, Deval Patrick. Folks who, because they're African-American, will also be able to do some kinship with voters," Harrison said.

With Harris and Booker taking their first trips to the state this coming weekend with several voter-facing events on their schedules, some think that these younger, more diverse faces will generate more excitement amongst a changing voter base.

"We as Democrats need to be focused on how do we excite our base, how do we get our people to vote," Harrison said. "That's the most important thing."

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly describe Justin Bamberg's position.

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