Home U.S. News Biden Repays His Debt to South Carolina

Biden Repays His Debt to South Carolina

Biden Repays His Debt to South Carolina

It’s usually thankless work to be a state-level political operative. But not this year for Democrats in South Carolina.

The state was the home of President Biden’s political resurrection in the primaries four years ago, and now it is reaping the rewards, moving up to become the first official primary on the Democratic presidential calendar. And the state’s county party chairs and partisan activists are basking in the attention.

Biden spent the night in the state last weekend. Vice President Kamala Harris will make her third trip in the last month here on Friday. A slew of A-list Democrats, including Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and the former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, have also made pilgrimages to heavily Black and rural areas.

All have come singing the praises of the voters who salvaged Biden’s fortunes during a tough presidential race in 2020. And, naturally, they’re being asked to do it again.

The role Black South Carolinians played during the 2020 campaign has become the stuff of political legend. Spurred on by a well-timed endorsement from Representative James Clyburn, they turned out en masse to revive Biden’s then-floundering campaign. Six months later, he won his party’s nomination for president, and eventually the White House.

As president, Biden promptly reordered Democrats’ presidential primary calendar to put the Palmetto State first.

Traveling the state in a county-to-county “bus tour” along the same roads he traversed during his 2020 U.S. Senate run, Jaime Harrison, the Democratic National Committee chair, has reminded voters of all that comes with that reward.

“Instead of talking about ethanol now in Iowa, guess what we’re going to talk about? Historically Black colleges and universities here in Orangeburg,” he told a group of Black voters at a barbershop in his hometown last week. “We’re going to start talking about the Black infant mortality rate. We’re going to start talking about how Black farmers have not gotten their due.”

When I sat down with Harrison in the cafeteria of a community center in the tiny town of Seneca, S.C., he told me that Biden’s call to reorder the primary calendar was an act of equity more than political favor.

The president “wants to make sure that the most faithful bloc of the Democratic Party that has been left out the most historically in this country is represented and they have a seat at the table and they’re driving the agenda for what’s important,” he said. “That’s part of why South Carolina was made first in the nation.”

Democrats have poured plenty of money and effort into South Carolina — a state that Biden’s Republican rival, Donald Trump, won by 12 points in 2020, and is expected to easily win again. No Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter has won the state.

But, as I wrote a month ago, South Carolina is also a proving ground for Democrats. The party is using the state to test a national message to Black voters here that they hope will resonate in cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia or Detroit.

Biden will not be in South Carolina for the night of the primary on Feb. 3 — a reflection that the vote is not really competitive. But he did spend last weekend in the state, stopping to talk to men at a local barbershop, giving a speech to the party faithful at Democrats’ marquee First in the Nation dinner and addressing congregants at two Black churches in Columbia.

Clyburn’s status as a linchpin Biden ally is on display. Harris will rally college students on the campus of South Carolina State — Clyburn’s alma mater — on Friday. The campaign has also hired several homegrown political operatives with close ties to Clyburn as senior advisers.

Biden made it very clear during his visit how he feels about South Carolina during a speech to more than 700 Democratic Party leaders, organizers and county chairs in a ballroom at the South Carolina fairgrounds on Saturday.

“I wouldn’t be here without the Democratic voters in South Carolina,” he said. “You’re the reason I am president. You’re the reason.”

Two curmudgeonly old rivals are marching toward a showdown that a lot of people really wish wasn’t happening. If that’s the plot of a slapstick comedy, it’s also the latest knock from Nikki Haley on former President Donald Trump and President Biden as she fights for oxygen ahead of the Republican primary in South Carolina on Feb. 24.

In a new series titled “Grumpy Old Men,” the Haley campaign will start unveiling online videos, digital ads and voter emails. Episodes like “Stumbling Seniors” and “Basement Buddies” take shots her rivals’ signs of mental confusion and their light presence on the campaign trail, among other things.

The push is part of a shift in strategy that Haley began after the Iowa caucuses, casting Trump, 77, and Biden, 81, as belonging to the same bygone era of politician, one she says is deeply at odds with the country’s needs. It also follows her more aggressive posturing toward Trump as the two head into a heated face-off in South Carolina, the state where she was born and raised, and which she led as governor.

But the series, with its reference to a movie from 1993, could prove a risky bet as she looks to court a Republican base that is largely graying, white and Christian. Polls show her trailing the former president by double digits in her home state. Attacks on Biden’s age did not play well during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Haley, 52, has consistently pitched herself as a “new generational leader” for her party and called for mental competency tests for candidates who are 75 or older. Yet, until recently, she has taken a careful approach toward both men and their age.

Her most pointed attacks on the issue have been against Biden, though she often tells her audiences that she is not being disrespectful. “We all know 75-year-olds that can run circles around us,” she often says on the stump, “and then we know Joe Biden.”

Until recently, she has been even less inclined to go after Trump. She directly criticized him as being in mental decline for the first time only this month, after he appeared to confuse her for Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker. On Saturday, she called his reaction to her momentum in New Hampshire “totally unhinged.” —Jazmine Ulloa

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