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‘Heart of the Democratic Party’: Black voters in S.C. see first candidate push

Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders are scheduled to be back-to-back speakers at the state capital’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally. | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, S.C.— When Sens. Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders make their first early primary state appearances of 2019 on Monday, the location won’t be by chance.

As the first Southern state to vote in 2020 — and, more important, the first state where African-Americans will cast a majority of the primary vote — South Carolina looms as a crucible for both potential presidential candidates. Each has something to prove here, though for entirely different reasons.

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For Booker, the state presents an opportunity for an early show of strength next year with the Democratic Party’s most loyal bloc of voters. As one of the few African-American candidates likely to run, he’ll have a moment to break out of the crowded field after voting takes place in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire.

For Sanders, it’s an opening to move beyond his dismal 2016 performance with black voters here, when he won only 26 percent of the total vote in the primary against Hillary Clinton and exposed a weakness that was repeated across the South.

“Why is South Carolina important?” said Jaime Harrison, a former chair of the state Democratic Party. “It’s important because it’s the first state that these candidates will get an opportunity to vet their message with a population that reflects the heart of the Democratic Party, which is African-Americans and specifically African-American women.”

Booker and Sanders are scheduled to be back-to-back speakers at the state capital’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally. But Booker has been branded as the main attraction at the event, an indication of his popularity in the state — local Democratic leaders say the grassroots is excited to hear him speak. Both senators will also attend a prayer service and march to the statehouse.

A 60-second promotional radio ad features sound bites of Booker delivering a fiery address. The narrator mentions him by name three times, and the spot says Booker will bring “his message of hope” to Columbia.

Representatives from the South Carolina NAACP said they invited Booker to attend the rally because of his education advocacy. He has a long record of supporting charter schools, which has put him at odds with some in the party — Sanders himself has criticized “privately controlled” charters. The theme of this year’s event is “Education First: Illuminating the Path to Change.”

The nonpartisan group also extended invitations to South Carolina Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott. Graham’s office didn’t respond, according to the state NAACP, and Scott was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.

Sanders‘ appearance is a sign of his determination to make his second run different than his first and a recognition of the challenges ahead. When Sanders visited South Carolina in October of last year, some local Democrats said he’d be better off staying home: His progressive brand, they argued, would hurt the party in a general election in a state dominated by Republicans. His rally ended up drawing about 1,000 attendees.

“At that point in time, we were in the midst of a very consequential gubernatorial race in the state, and Sen. Sanders coming to the state was not seen as a helping hand,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. Seawright added that he is “not here to bash Bernie Sanders … nobody wins when the family feuds,” but “I think the pathway is very difficult for him this time around.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Booker and Sanders may be off to a head start in the state this year, but not by much. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is expected to compete with Booker for the support of the state’s black primary voters, is visiting the state Friday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has an organizing event scheduled for Wednesday.

South Carolina-based Democratic insiders said Booker, Harris, and former Vice President Joe Biden are likely early front-runners. A key factor, they said, is how successful candidates are in talking about issues that matter to black women — according to 2016 exit polls, they cast 37 percent of the primary vote here.

“In this state, black women are the ones who decide winners, for the most part, in the Democratic primary,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic National Committee member.

The state NAACP will moderate an afternoon roundtable with Sanders. Organizers said the forum’s topics will include the ongoing partial government shutdown, education and housing reform. Sanders, who has not yet said whether he will run for president, will also speak at Mount Zion AME Church in Florence on Monday and to Benedict College and Allen University students Tuesday.

Ed Rendell, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and ex-governor of Pennsylvania, said it’s important for Sanders to go to South Carolina as early and often as he can to be successful in 2020. In the state’s primary, he said, the Vermont senator needs to place in the top three or four.

“If he comes in fifth and doesn’t do well with African-Americans, the storyline will be that Sanders can’t bond with African-American voters, who are the most reliable base of Democratic voters,” he said. “So it’s more important for him to do well in South Carolina than, say, Booker, or Beto O’Rourke.”

Beto O'Rourke is escorted by law enforcement after voting in November

Lawrence Moore, co-chair of the state chapter of the Sanders-founded Our Revolution, said that Sanders lost here in 2016 partly because “voters didn’t actually know him.” If he runs for president in 2020, he’ll be on much different terrain: Only 9 percent of Americans have no opinion or have never heard of him, according to a recent Gallup poll, compared to 76 percent a month before he launched his 2016 presidential campaign.

Since the 2016 primary, Sanders’ allies have also attempted to build up left-wing infrastructure in the state. Moore said the state’s Our Revolution chapter, which he founded in 2016, has more than 1,000 members who donate money or volunteer with the organization.

Several South Carolina Democrats said they’ve taken calls from Booker and Harris in recent weeks, and some have met with the potential candidates during recent stops to the state. Booker will hold private meetings with local activists and leaders again on Monday.

“This is the advice I would give to all of the candidates: Don’t just try to appeal to people who look like you or have your shared background,” said Jaime Harrison, former chair of the state Democratic Party. “Yes, you want to make sure you talk to those communities. But when you’re elected president of the United States, you’re being elected not president of black people, not president of Latinos, not president of white folks, but president of everybody.”

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