By Hastings Wyman –
As the first-in-the South Democratic Primary in 2016, South Carolina is receiving significant attention from announced and potential presidential candidates. At the party’s state convention in Columbia over the weekend, leading White House wannabes or their surrogates were very much in evidence.
Hillary Clinton is, as elsewhere in the nation, the leading candidate in South Carolina. But other potential contenders are waiting to see if the current email and contributions “scandals” will damage her campaign significantly. She did not attend the convention, but two prominent Virginia Democrats who are supporting her, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and US Sen. Mark Warner, both addressed the delegates. Her campaign showed a video of Clinton speaking and her staffers worked the delegates, getting names and addresses of supporters. She will be visiting South Carolina in May.
SPR was not at the convention, but we talked to a number of key Palmetto State Democrats about presidential politics in the state.
Don Fowler, a former chairman of the state and national Democratic parties, is optimistic about Clinton’s prospects. “There are two or three people who didn’t like her in 2008 and don’t like her now … There’s not a unanimous level of support for her, but I fully expect her to win in South Carolina and to win the nomination.”
Charleston lawyer Waring Howe, a former Democratic National Committeeman, says “Some Democrats are going to be conscious if the Hillary campaign takes on an aura – like it did eight years ago – of entitlement… that they are entitled to it if they want it.” But, he says, Clinton “is greatly more qualified now than then,” with a good record as secretary of state. “The Hillary campaign is going to be so strong… with so many people yearning for breaking the ice a second time, with the first female president [that] a significant snowball effect will get very large, that she will win this state hugely, that she will swamp the others.”
Clinton named Clay Middleton, a former political aide to US Rep. James Clyburn, to run her campaign in the state. Middleton, an African-American, was active in Obama’s campaigns 2008 and 2012. This will give her major political muscle in the state’s black community, crucial to any campaign here, where African-Americans are likely to account for an estimated 50% to 60% of the Democratic Primary turnout. Clinton has also been endorsed by state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a prominent and popular player in state Democratic politics. Sellers, 30, is the son of civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers. Clinton has also brought on four full-time staffers in the state.
Former Gov. Richard Riley, who served as secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and is expected to be named the state campaign chairman.
Clinton, however, so far does not have the support of influential US Rep. James Clyburn. In his book, Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black, published last year, Clyburn related how Bill Clinton called him at 2am after Obama won the state’s primary and berated him for his wife’s defeat. Clyburn relates that Clinton cursed him, using the word “bastard” several times. Clinton later apologized, but the experience still rankled enough six years later for Clyburn to include it in his book.
Clinton may be the strongest contender, but other potential candidates are making their presence known. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and independent US Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT), according to news reports, received standing ovations. Former Gov. Lincoln Chaffee (RI) also addressed the convention and former US Sen. Jim Webb (VA) was represented by his chief political advisor, David “Mudcat” Saunders. While Vice-president Joe Biden did not have an official presence, he has been here numerous times and has supporters in the state.
Columbia lawyer and former state Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian, a Biden supporter, says, “Closer to the middle of summer, we’ll see if Biden runs. I talked to him three or four weeks ago when he was here. He hadn’t made up his mind.” In an article in the Washington Post in March, Harpootlian said of Biden, “He ain’t got no e-mail problems. He ain’t got no foundation problems.”
Should Biden run, he has a key former aide in the state in Fran Person, who is now a consultant to the president and the athletic director of the University of South Carolina. Person, 32, is a native of the state and played football for the Gamecocks. He traveled with Biden in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, becoming his “team captain and gatekeeper,” says Politico.
H. Boyd Brown, now 28 and the Democratic National Committeeman from South Carolina, is for O’Malley. Brown, who was elected to his party post when he was only 25, is a feisty firebrand who appeals to the state’s younger, progressive Democrats. He says of Clinton, “People will get tired of her. She’s peaked and has no way to go but down; the others have no way to go but up.” As for O’Malley, Brown says, “He’s genuine and he has a track record. It’s taken Hillary Clinton decades to evolve on issues of interest to Democrats. He’s charging on them, actually implementing them.”
O’Malley is no stranger to the Palmetto State; he has made numerous trips to the state and has been well-received. Long-time Democratic activist Phil Noble, quoted in the Greenville News, said “O’Malley is a good guy. He’s smart, he’s committed … He’ll get a shot and that’s all you can ask.”
Jim Webb, who so far has no visible operation in the state, was represented by his chief political advisor, David “Mudcat” Saunders, a consultant who specializes in helping Democratic candidates win back the support of rural and low-income white voters. He once described Webb as “redneck regal.”