When South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and state Rep. James Smith face off in the November election for governor, the Democrat will need black voters to turn out in droves if he is to have a chance of winning the Governor’s Mansion.
But can it be done?
Democrats say yes, and note the behind-the-scenes involvement of the state’s most prominent Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.
Yet Republicans remain skeptical, saying that more and more black voters — who traditionally account for more than 60 percent of Democratic voters in South Carolina — can not be pigeonholed as supporting only one party.
Black voters increasingly are a political power in South Carolina.
Before the 2010 S.C. governor’s race — between then-Republican state Rep. Nikki Haley and Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen — less than 740,000 black voters were registered to vote. In 2014 — Sheheen’s second race against then-Gov. Haley — 817,102 black voters were registered. More than half — 476,580 — were women, with most in the 25- to 44-year-old age group. In the 2016 presidential election, 864,949 black voters were registered to vote in South Carolina, with 503,284 of them women.
But will those voters turn out and vote in November, and will they vote for Smith?
The governor’s race in South Carolina — which Democrats have not won in two decades — has generated little national attention. Instead, the campaign is playing out in the political shadows as contests in other Southern states, including Florida and Georgia, dominate the national political radar.
But in the coming weeks, the race between McMaster and Smith could get more attention.
At least five 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are expected to visit South Carolina in the next few weeks, trying to drum up support for Smith and other S.C. Democratic candidates, and, at the same time, their 2020 prospects. For instance, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., will headline the Orangeburg County Democratic Party’s annual cookoff fundraiser in October.
It’s a tactic that Democratic strategists say could help boost Smith’s name recognition statewide, particularly among black voters, while also creating buzz for ambitious Democrats in the state’s crucial 2020 presidential primary.
Smith’s supporters acknowledge the governor’s race has not attracted the energy and enthusiasm of Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida.
Clyburn, of Columbia, flatly stated the obvious as to why not: Unlike Abrams and Gillum, “James Smith’s not black.”
“The energy for those campaigns down there is the historic aspects of those campaigns,” Clyburn said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Clyburn taps Alabama strategy
Still, Clyburn insists, Smith can win.
Clyburn backed Smith early in his candidacy, helping to push him to victory in the June Democratic primary, where he easily beat two opponents.
Since that time, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House has remained behind-the-scenes in the governor’s race, for the most part focusing on talking to voters.
Clyburn said he is putting to use strategies that helped Democrat Doug Jones win a special election to the U.S. Senate from Alabama last year, beating a GOP nominee who — like McMaster — was backed by President Donald Trump.
Several allegations of sexual misconduct put a blow to Jones’ Republican opponent, Roy Moore, whose campaign quickly fell apart as Republican leaders distanced themselves from the candidate.
In South Carolina, Clyburn is helping organize a get-out-the-vote effort that he called “the most extensive ground operation ever” for S.C. Democrats. He said he was directing some of his own campaign money to local parties to help to bolster the endeavor.
Clyburn also has started an “Adopt-a-Precinct” program, which involves canvassing communities on behalf of the candidate. Activists are being armed with all the names of residents who voted in the last two presidential elections but who did not vote in the 2014 governor’s race. That allows them to identify and lobby potential Smith supporters.
The program follows the grass-roots model used to elect Jones last December — and, six months earlier, to help Democrat Archie Parnell come within striking distance of beating Ralph Norman in the special election for the 5th District in the U.S. House. Kendall Corley, a S.C. Democratic operative who worked for Parnell and, then, was dispatched to Alabama to help Jones, now is helping Smith.
Smith also has been courting black voters personally. This month, for instance, Smith and his running-mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell of Lancaster, tailgated with students at two historically black colleges in Columbia, Allen University and Benedict College.
The pair returned to Benedict Wednesday for a town-hall meeting focused on black millennial voters.
“I’m running to serve as governor for everyone in South Carolina. I’ve said that from the very, very beginning,” Smith said Wednesday. “The African-American community in our state is certainly critical to this election.”
Democrats depend on high black voter turnout to win elections, acknowledged Glenn McCall of Rock Hill, a National Republican Committee member.
But, McCall contends, the alliance of black voters and the Democratic Party is tenuous.
“More and more people of color are starting to think for themselves and not just hear the sound bites,” McCall said. “They’re looking at results, and Republicans are delivering. I talk to folks weekly, people of color who don’t go out and shout it from the mountaintop but they support the president and they support what Republicans are doing, especially on jobs and the economy.”
State Rep. Samuel Rivers, R-Berkeley, who supports McMaster, agrees.
In his conversations with younger black voters, Rivers — the only black Republican in the S.C. General Assembly — said he is seeing a change: those voters don’t want to be pigeon-holed as supporting only one party but are looking at candidates’ rhetoric and policies.
“If we look at what Republicans stand for — better access to education, school choice, free enterprise, opportunities — all of these things are what African-Americans want,” Rivers said. “As a Republican, it’s my job to remind them who we are and what we stand for.”
2020 candidates line up for SC
Visits by big-name Democrats — like Booker — will not be able to boost Smith to victory against a sitting governor, S.C. Democrats say.
“That comes from the candidate themselves,” said former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a CNN political analyst.
The attention “doesn’t hurt,” added Sellers, a onetime representative from Bamberg, “(but) James is doing an awesome job of running his own race.”
But the 51-year-old Smith has a problem: Statewide voters still are learning his name, even after he has spent 22 years in the S.C. House.
Smith needs money — lots of it — to introduce himself to the state’s voters, excite the party’s African-American voting base and convince independents and moderate Republicans to vote Democratic in a predominantly Republican state.
The national Democratic stars could help there, too.
Democratic headliners — whether U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California or former Vice President Joe Biden of Delaware — could help Smith raise money.
Clyburn said he has been trying to help Smith raise money from Democrats outside South Carolina. He confirmed he has been making the case to the Democratic Governors Association that it should put Smith’s race “on its radar screen” and personally flagged the race for association president Jay Inslee, a former Washington State congressman who — like Clyburn — was elected to the House in 1992.
“The DGA views South Carolina as a potential Democratic pickup opportunity,” said Jared Leopold, the association’s communications director. “We will be closely monitoring this race over the next several weeks.”
Though the Democratic governors group has not yet spent money on the S.C. race, it still could. The group typically holds off on making spending decisions until the final weeks — or even days — leading up to an election.
Separately, another South Carolinian with national ties has been using his influence to engage national Democrats in the Palmetto State race.
Jaime Harrison, an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former head of the S.C. Democratic Party, says Smith can win the governorship, provided he gets the help he needs to spread his message and energize voters.
That could come in the form of money from organizations like the Democratic National Committee, which Harrison said recently sent $50,000 to the state party, or others — the Democratic governors, political action committees or deep-pocketed Democratic donors. For example, Harrison said Tom Steyer, the wealthy philanthropist who supports impeaching President Trump, is “looking at how he can be helpful” in South Carolina.
Smith said he doesn’t know whether Steyer has offered his campaign any money, but said he is focused on South Carolinians.
“From the beginning ... I unified our party from Bernie (Sanders) to Biden, when we had everybody and every endorsement before the primary vote,” Smith said. “We won with 62 percent of the vote, and we won because we had an authentic, honest, clear message about a commitment to serve.”
Part of the challenge in getting out-of-state Democrats to support Smith is convincing them that a Democrat actually can win in South Carolina, Harrison said. The latest Cook Political Report questions that possibility, rating the S.C. governor’s race at “likely Republican.”
“For some people on the national level, it’s hard for them to get over the fact that South Carolina can be competitive,” Harrison said.
Still, Smith can’t be seen as spending too much time going after national donors.
The Democrat recently went to Washington, D.C., for a fundraiser hosted by Harrison, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and S.C. Democratic political strategist Antjuan Seawright — another former Parnell and Jones organizer — featuring a special video endorsement from former Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAulliffe.
Shortly thereafter, McMaster’s campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg blasted out an email accusing Smith of getting “cozy” with “liberals” at a “swanky” fundraiser.
On Thursday, in an email, Anderegg also decried the pending visits in support of Smith by such “liberal heavy hitters” as Booker.
“James Smith is now cozying up to Cory Booker, who, like James, believes in a $32 trillion health care plan, raising taxes and siding with big labor over South Carolina workers,” Anderegg said.
Smith said Thursday, “We’re seeking the support of South Carolina and all South Carolinians: Democrats, Republicans and Independents.”
McMaster, however, has a reliable D.C. connection in his back pocket, too: Trump, who campaigned for McMaster last fall and held a rally for him on the eve of the Republican runoff. The president was back in the state Wednesday, promising Hurricane Florence relief and praising McMaster’s leadership during the storm.
Democrats acknowledge a Trump-backed candidate can be a tough hurdle, particularly in a state that overwhelmingly supports the administration.
“People would be fooling themselves if they thought this was easy,” said Sellers.
But, Sellers added, “If anyone is going to defy the odds, it’s James.”
“This race is not about what South Carolina was,” Seawright said. “This race is about where ... South Carolina is headed.”