HOPKINS, S.C. — Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, both considered top potential 2020 presidential candidates, were only in South Carolina at the same time for about two hours last Friday morning, but their individual visits offered a preview of a potentially historic presidential primary featuring two leading African-American candidates.
If they do decide to enter the race, they are likely to spend even more time in South Carolina, whose Democratic primary is traditionally one of the first on the calendar. It is also a state where African-American voters have been a decisive factor in elections.
So far, however, Booker and Harris insisted that their visit to South Carolina was all about the midterm elections next month, and both batted away questions about whether they are thinking about running against each other anytime soon.
“I don’t see it as facing off. She’s my sister. We’re on the same team. We’re all trying to help Democrats here to win,” Booker told Yahoo News at an event in Orangeburg last Thursday night.
Booker, of New Jersey, and Harris, of California, sit together on the Judiciary Committee, and they have become close during their time in the Senate.
“We are friends. We are friends actually,” said Harris the following evening in Hopkins. “He and I are with the same purpose, and that’s to get people out to vote for the 2018 election cycle, and we are joined at the hip in that purpose.”
Despite their protestations, both Booker and Harris are acting like clear presidential contenders. In their time in South Carolina both held private meetings with key local leaders who could prove to be valuable allies in a campaign. Both are also making trips to other key primary states, and Booker in particular has already started laying concrete groundwork for a White House bid.
In the midterms, the black vote is also a decisive variable. Nationally, Democrats are projected to take back the House by an overwhelming margin if turnout is high. That’s particularly true when it comes to young people and minorities, two groups that generally vote for Democrats and historically turn out in low numbers. The African-American vote is even more crucial in South Carolina, where about 65 percent of Democratic primary voters in the 2016 election were black, according to exit polls. Overall, about 27 percent of the state’s population is African-American.
Booker held three public events across South Carolina on Thursday and one more the following day. During his first appearance on Thursday at Allen University, a historically black school in Columbia, several of the local leaders who spoke discussed the importance of the black vote in very stark terms.
“Simple and plain, the numbers show that, in South Carolina, the African-American community alone can win this election,” Rosalyn Glenn, a candidate for state treasurer said. “Go vote. It is your privilege; it is your right; it is your responsibility to do that.”
Melvin Whittenburg, who is running for secretary of state, broke down the numbers. “We have over 900,000 registered African-American voters. That’s not our problem. Our problem is we don’t show up at the polls. We haven’t showed up at the polls since President Obama. We need to change that,” he said.
For their part, both Booker and Harris made more generalized appeals to get out the vote. At Allen University on Thursday, Booker asked the audience to “swear an oath” that they would turn out and vote.
“On Nov. 6, I’m not just going to the polls, I’m going to bring some folk with m. I’m going to lift some folk up. I’m going to get some folk woke,” Booker said.
The following day, at a church in Greenville, Harris similarly issued a call to action. “At some point, this moment will pass, and years from now our children, our grandchildren … they’re going to ask us where were you at that inflection point,” Harris said.
Local leaders are optimistic that black turnout will be high in both the midterms and the 2020 election. They pointed to Alabama, where Doug Jones became that state’s first Democratic senator in over two decades last December, thanks largely to black voters who turned out in even greater numbers than they did for President Obama’s reelection in 2012.
Jaime Harrison, a former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party who appeared with Booker at multiple events on Thursday, cited Jones as an example of a contest that brought out the black vote. “I really do believe that African-American turnout is going to be significant, and I think it’s going to be a game-changer, as it has been in other elections,” he said.
Harrison also pointed out that it would be incorrect to reduce Booker and Harris’s candidacies to the issue of race.
“I think the African-American candidates who are running are not just black candidates. Sen. Booker and Kamala Harris have won in states that are extremely diverse where they have had a lot of support,” Harrison said. “I think, not only will they be able to have some traction … in the African-American community, I think they’ll be viable in other communities as well.”
Still, the black vote looms large in South Carolina. In the past two competitive Democratic primaries, black voters largely came to the polls as a bloc. And in both cases, that bloc picked the winner. In 2008, exit polls showed over 75 percent of black voters in South Carolina backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. With their support, Obama won, and the state’s primary was crucial for his eventual nomination. Similarly, in 2016, exit polls showed over 85 percent of African American voters in South Carolina chose Clinton over Bernie Sanders, a major factor that propelled her toward the party’s nomination.
The next presidential race is shaping up to have an extremely crowded field, and Booker and Harris aren’t the only potential contenders with their eyes on South Carolina. Both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sanders spent time in the state last week too.
With the potential for a large number of contenders in 2020, including two black presidential candidates, it remains to be seen whether anyone can emerge as the clear choice of South Carolina’s African-American community. If not, the state’s next winner will have a far different path to victory than past victors. Trav Robertson, the chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, who appeared with both Booker and Harris last week, said all the potential hopefuls who have visited there have generated enthusiasm.
“I think all of the individuals who’ve come to South Carolina have gotten a great reception, whether it’s [Los Angeles Mayor Eric] Garcetti, Michael Bloomberg, or Michael Avenatti,” Robertson explained.
Booker and Harris’s visit to South Carolina showed flashes of their differing styles. While Booker typically lingered long after each of his speeches to take selfies with audience members, Harris quickly departed after speaking in Greenville. And while Booker spent Thursday speaking to audiences that were almost entirely African-American, Harris’s event in Greenville attracted a more diverse crowd, with a large contingent of white women.
Harris and Booker’s appearances also may have offered previews of potential allies in the state. Rep. James Clyburn, the state’s most powerful Democrat, has long held a reputation as a political kingmaker in South Carolina, and his endorsement is widely seen as a major factor. On Thursday, Clyburn appeared alongside Booker at multiple events, but he told Yahoo News that his presence shouldn’t be taken as a sign that his mind was made up.
“I’ve been with Bloomberg today as well. I’ll be with Kamala Harris tomorrow. I was with [Ohio Congressman] Tim Ryan yesterday. So, I’m helping everybody,” Clyburn said.
Clyburn didn’t end up making it to any of Harris’s events on Friday, but his daughter did join her.
Of course, for now, both Booker and Harris insist they are solely campaigning for local and congressional candidates.
“She’s not a declared candidate; I am not a declared candidate. We are both focused on right now, Nov. 6,” Booker told Yahoo News.
At Allen University, Booker said he would “think about what the next steps are for me” in the days following the Nov. 6 midterm races.
Harris was even more coy when Yahoo News asked when she would make her big decision.
“Which decision are you speaking of? The 2018 election cycle? …. Voters are going to vote for governor … and treasurer … and secretary of state,” Harris said, wrapping her arm around Rosalyn Glenn, the candidate for treasurer. “It’s really easy to figure that one out.”
(Cover thumbnail photos: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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