Joe Biden told a Spartanburg crowd on Wednesday that Democrats must sell themselves as more than the party to beat President Donald Trump in 2020.
Then down the road in Gaffney, Biden told a Limestone College crowd that “we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation.”
But even as Biden focused his rhetoric on Democratic Party values, the setting of his stops underscored another important strategy in the former vice president’s plan to be the Democrat who gets a shot at retaking the White House.
The presidential hopeful’s two-day swing through the state, starting Wednesday, went right through counties that went big for Trump in 2016.
Asked about his strategy to win over GOP voters, Biden demurred.
“My strategy is to tell the truth, go out and lay out for people what’s going on, what my views are and why I disagree with the president,” he told reporters. “I plan on trying to be president for everyone.”
Biden, who has been leading in early polls of South Carolina’s February first-in-the-South primary, was far from politically home.
Historically, Cherokee and Spartanburg counties have been comfortable districts for Republicans. In the 2016 general election, they were among the top 10 counties with the largest victories for Trump, who won Spartanburg with 63% of the vote, compared with then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 33%. In Cherokee County, Trump won 70% of the vote to Clinton’s 28%.
However, Democratic candidates, including ones seeking statewide offices, have tried to campaign more in the Upstate, hoping to win new support by peeling off disenchanted moderate GOP voters. The candidates see the Trump administration’s trade policies — threatening and imposing tariffs that could impact S.C. companies — as fuel for that effort with Spartanburg being home to German automaker BMW’s first U.S. manufacturing plant, with auto suppliers scattered around the region.
On Thursday, Biden will continue his campaign swing through the state, visiting Clinton College in Rock Hill, which is in conservative York County, then a Greenville community center.
“I think if a candidate can come out and really talk to people individually,” a Democrat could win over GOP voters, said Campobello resident Nancy Kenney, 73, who said she’s learning toward Biden after hearing him speak. “I really like him a lot. He’s just real positive.”
Democratic S.C. Sen. Glenn Reese, who hosted Biden at his Spartanburg Krispy Kreme, said he knows something about winning over GOP voters.
Reese, who told The State he won’t endorse a presidential candidate until November, welcomed Biden to his Krispy Kreme shop, a tradition for Democratic candidates making their way through Spartanburg County, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in 2007.
“They just have to come and work it face-to-face, and that’s what I do every day; that’s what I’ve done for 29 years,” said Reese, whose doughnut shop has become a traditional stop for Democratic candidates in the county, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton in 2007.
“When Obama came in ‘07 ... I just asked him a question, ‘Why did you come to Spartanburg?’ And he said, ‘We looked at the map and it said it was the most Republican county in the nation and you’d been winning for 17 years and I want to know what you’ve been doing.”
Biden told reporters what he’s heard from Republican voters is “all anecdotal.”
But one voter told him in Spartanburg Wednesday that his mother, a staunch Republican, will vote for him, he said.
“I don’t know if that’s true or not,” Biden said. “You have to win a primary here to get to a general.”
Undecided voters came to see
Not every voter who turned out Wednesday to see Biden said they had thrown their support behind the former Delaware U.S. senator.
“It’s too early,” said Carol Epps, 68, of Spartanburg, who described herself as a progressive Democrat. “I’m trying to meet as many of the candidates as I can. ... Once the field gets narrowed down more I’ll have a clearer idea of who I’m going to support.”
Epps said she likes Biden but said she is concerned about his energy level.
“It’s not an age-related thing,” she said. “In the beginning, he sort of was complacent, thought he had it in the bag. I’m thinking maybe it’s (the 2020 Democratic presidential race) tighter than he thought and maybe that enthusiasm will come out.”
Manning native Shaniya Holliday, 19, said she has narrowed down her support to Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Why Biden? “He was beside President Barack Obama, and I feel like he already (knows) how to run the country,” the University of South Carolina Upstate sophomore said. Why Sanders? “He talks a good game, and he has a lot of good viewpoints,” Holliday added.
But according to six lacrosse players at Gaffney’s Limestone College, Biden certainly made an impression.
“I’m leaning toward Biden,” said Limestone freshman Cameron Strait, 18, who is registered to vote in his home state of Louisiana but wants to register in South Carolina to vote in the primary. “He understands how to solve problems.”
Biden will return to the state Sept. 16 for the Galivants Ferry Stump, a 150-year-old tradition for Democrats in Horry County. Scheduled also are Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.