Two weeks of S.C. presidential primaries provided a contrast in the parties’ futures.
S.C. voters chose Saturday between two Democratic presidential candidates with an average age of 71. A week earlier, one of the more powerful images from the S.C. Republican primary was a trio of 40-something rising stars, waving together from a campaign stage in Columbia.
“You see that picture of Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Marco Rubio,” S.C. Democratic activist Phil Noble said, referring to the S.C. governor, U.S. senator from North Charleston and presidential candidate from Florida. “And you ask, ‘Where is the Democratic equivalent?’ ”
With the 68-year-old Hillary Clinton expected to win her party’s nomination after her victory in Saturday’s S.C. primary, the Democratic Party faces questions about who will succeed its current leaders in the next presidential race.
“Does the party take a generational or ideological shift?” asked Michael Bitzer, a political scientist with Catawba College in North Carolina.
November could be the last presidential election won by a baby boomer.
“So seldom do you see a torch passed up a generation” from the 54-year-old Obama to the more senior Clinton, said Boyd Brown, a former Democratic lawmaker from Winnsboro and one of the state’s six Democratic superdelegates. “We do have an aging problem in the Democratic Party.”
Some think the excitement brought to the race by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an 74-year-old independent from Vermont who attracted younger voters by pushing the party to the left, warrants a shift in the party’s priorities.
“We’re not going see that in the years to come – where the establishment waves a magic wand and you get anointed,” said Rick Wade, a former Obama administration official and cabinet head under S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges. “It’s going to be more about your ideology than your packaging.”
No graceful exits
The Republican presidential field included as many as four candidates in their 40s. Two of the 40-somethings, Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, remain in the race.
The youngest Democrat running for the White House this year was 53-year-old Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor. He dropped out after the Iowa caucus.
Part of the Democrats’ aging problem, perversely, is due to their success in capturing the White House.
Midterm elections hurt the party holding the White House, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Under President Obama, losses in those elections “wiped out the Democrats’ bench.”
Catawba’s Bitzer said the Republicans’ success in recent state government elections means “they have a deeper well of folks in office,” a well that attracted 17 GOP candidates to the presidential race.
With the exception of O’Malley, Clinton was able to keep the field clear of younger competitors. But removing older Democrats from leadership spots in the future won’t be easy.
Brown, O’Malley’s state chairman before backing Clinton, said the former secretary of state’s supporters say O’Malley was their second choice. “They’d say, ‘Now is Hillary’s time.’ ”
On the Republican side, Rubio ignored calls to wait his turn – after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rubio’s onetime mentor – to run for president. Bush abandoned the race a week ago.
“You’ll have to kick them out. I don’t see them exiting gracefully,” state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat and S.C. superdelegate, said of older Democratic politicians. “This is blood sport. People are going to have to decide what they want and just go for it.”
The 2020 or 2024 Democratic nominee could be a young minority officeholder, a progressive like Sanders, or a non-politician, like 2016 GOP front-runner Donald Trump, the New York billionaire and reality-television star.
Cobb-Hunter, who has not endorsed a 2016 candidate, expects to see a more progressive party in the future – one with “less interest in what’s good for business and more emphasis on what’s good for everyday people.”
“I hope the next generation won’t be as spinally challenged than this one,” she said.
Future candidates will cross economic and racial barriers, Wade said. “Poor is poor is poor. There’s no color with it.”
An example cited by Noble, a technology consultant who runs the S.C New Democrats, is U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Booker, who campaigned last week in South Carolina for Clinton, is an urban politician known for his support of technology.
“He’s not your guy who’ll say, ‘Give us another federal grant to build another hotel on the waterfront,’ ” Noble said.
In addition to Booker, other younger minorities who could become future party leaders include: Kamala Harris, the California attorney general running for the U.S. Senate; and the Castro twins – Joaquín, a Texas congressman, and Julián, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Perhaps the Democratic nominee after 2016 will come from outside politics, like Trump.
A business candidate could come from Silicon Valley, Noble said. “Almost all of them are Democrats and many are younger.”
So-called “Democratic Trumps” could include businessmen like California hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer and Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, Noble said.
An anti-establishment candidate likely would push the party to the left, like Sanders, creating a rift among Democrats.
“Will the left flank of our party become what the tea party has become to the Republican Party?” asked Brown.
Becoming more liberal could hurt the Democratic Party in South Carolina, known for being more centrist.
“You can’t just be against the banks,” Brown said. “You have to tell us what you are for. You have to be pragmatic.”
Possible Democratic candidates in future presidential elections, cited by S.C. party leaders and political pundits:
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro of Texas
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
California Attorney General Kamala Harris
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley
Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz
California hedge fund manager Tom Steyer
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia