South Carolina is a little more than two weeks away from voting in the 2018 midterm election. But when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, came to Columbia on Saturday, it felt more like a rally for the presidential election in 2020.
Sanders’ visit was billed as a rally to support “Medicare for All,” the Vermont senator’s proposal for a universal, single-payer health care system modeled on the federal program for seniors.
But his speech to a crowd at the Koger Center for the Arts on Saturday touched on a wide range of topics, from college tuition to climate change to criminal justice reform — and the current occupant of the White House.
Sanders noted that Donald Trump campaigned for president by promising health care coverage for “everybody,” but had followed up with attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and cut spending on other programs meant to help the ill and injured.
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“I know this is going to shock you, but Donald Trump lied,” Sanders said as he stood in front of supporters holding signs that read “Medicare for Y’all.”
Sanders was in Columbia to speak to a conference of the group Our Revolution SC, the state chapter of the organization that spun off from Sanders’s unsuccessful 2016 run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
But it was also the latest in a string of visits by potential presidential candidates ahead of South Carolina’s first-in-the-South Democratic primary in 2020. California Sen. Kamala Harris spoke to a crowd in Hopkins on Friday, one day after both New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg both made appearances in Columbia.
With only weeks to go until the midterm election on Nov. 6, some S.C. Democrats openly worry that Sanders’ left-leaning, progressive message is counterproductive to local candidates’ need to woo the moderate voters needed to win. The only S.C. candidate to speak at the Our Revolution rally was state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, a supporter of Sanders from his 2016 presidential run.
“I know some people weren’t too excited about Sen. Sanders coming,” Bamberg told the crowd. “Well, who invited them? I look around the room and I think it’s pretty clear why the senator is here. Because the people wanted him here.”
But Sanders has become a lightning rod in South Carolina’s elections nonetheless. Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has released a digital ad attacking his Democratic opponent James Smith for accepting an endorsement from Our Revolution.
In a special Columbia-area election for the state Senate, the GOP Senate caucus ran ads tying Democrat Dick Harpootlian to Sanders, until a state Circuit Court judge ordered them to stop, saying the ads breached campaign spending limits.
On Saturday, Sanders said ideas that were once considered radical, like extending Medicare-style benefits to the rest of the population, are now considered mainstream ideas with popular support, at least within Democratic circles.
“People are asking ‘Why does it only have to be 65 and older?’ That’s an arbitrary limit,” Sanders said, arguing that moving away from private insurance would bring costs down while expanding Medicare benefits to cover dental, hearing and vision coverage.
Hannah Mauldin, a Columbia nursing student at ECPI, was attracted by the rally’s health care message, and by Sanders himself.
“I hope he’s going to announce he’s running for president,” Mauldin said.
Kitt Grach, a retiree who traveled from Charleston for the rally, was a supporter of Sanders’s 2016 presidential run, but said she wants to “listen to quite a few candidates” this time.
“We can’t go around anointing people,” Grach said. “That didn’t work out so well last time.”