Earlier this year there was an Associated Press article last year titled: “South Carolina Democrats: Better if Sanders ‘got lost.'” It interviewed a handful of former Democratic Party operatives who argued Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is too extreme for South Carolina and shouldn’t be campaigning in the state. But the quotation in the headline comes from Boyd Brown, a former lawmaker who today works at a bipartisan lobbying firm he co-founded with a former Bush and Romney aide.
Why he was picked to be the voice of South Carolina Democrats for this article, well, you’ll have to ask the Associated Press.
The narrative of the article clashed with what a friend of mine who is on the state committee of a Democratic Party chapter in the South told me recently. They believed Sanders would be a strong 2020 primary contender in the South because a Clinton isn’t on the ballot this time.
Much of the news media misunderstood why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did so well with older Southern black voters in 2016, interpreting it as antagonism towards Sanders. But Sanders’s approval ratings with African American voters have never been low. Yet it was difficult to compete with the name recognition and loyalty the Clintons built over 30 years of campaigning in the South.
But the question is whether things are different for Sanders this time. Although it’s early and we don’t actually have any polling data on South Carolina yet, there are signs that Sanders may be able to get more traction there this time than he did last time.
He made a few stops in the state during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. and he’s getting positive reviews from Democratic lawmakers in South Carolina, who were almost entirely united behind Clinton last time.
A number of them described Sanders’s posture as improved.
In 2016, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a superdelegate, implied that Sanders was weak in the state not because of what he believed but that he simply had not spent the time necessary to build connections.
“What Sen. Sanders discovered is that you can have a great message and money, but time is not something that waits on anyone,” she said.
But the Senator has now earned her respect.
“He’s learned from his last run and he recognizes if he’s serious about winning the presidency or the nomination, that he needs to do more to get black voters to know who he is and what he stands for,” state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest serving African American lawmaker in the legislature, said. Sanders also spoke to the Legislative Black Caucus.
“Each member of each caucus was really moved because they felt he stuck to his message,” state Rep. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston, who supported Sanders in 2016 said. “He hadn’t changed or wavered.”
In 2016, Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford was a Clinton surrogate, and went scorched earth on Sanders.
“He only really started talking about issues concerning African Americans in the last 40 days,” Rutherford said at the time. “On the question of social justice for African Americans, the record is thin.” (This isn’t true, but this is the sort of thing you say to defeat an opponent in an election.)
But after Sanders’s most recent trip, Rutherford changed his tune. “He was very well received. He talked about the things that I think are important to all of the members,” he said.
None of this is to say that Sanders may score the hegemonic victory that Clinton had in the state in 2016. But in a crowded field, his improved standing with southern lawmakers may be an indicator that he has built the name recognition and respect he needs to be a contender in the region.