Politics & Government

‘Turn it up,’ Cory Booker’s backers say as SC campaign tries to hold on to spark

When Cory Booker’s campaign asked if their presidential candidate could stump at Toliver’s Mane Event barbershop in Columbia, co-owner Christopher Toliver agreed, but with a warning.

“Some of us here are (Joe) Biden people,” the 48-year-old Toliver recalled telling Booker’s team, referring to the former vice president who enjoys widespread support in South Carolina and among the barbershop’s predominantly black clientele.

Biden has the endorsement of Herbert Toliver, Christopher Toliver’s 73-year-old father and co-owner who cuts hair standing in front of a signed campaign ad of President Barack Obama shaking hands with U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s most influential black politician. Clyburn gets his hair cut at Toliver’s, too, and the Tolivers believe Clyburn is also backing Biden.

So the morning of Booker’s visit, Christopher Toliver went to his shop admittedly undecided on a candidate but leaning toward Biden. But after Booker came and made his pitch, the younger Toliver had made up his mind he would vote for Booker.

“(I) listened to him talk about crime, injustice and the economy, things about race relations in this country,” Toliver told The State from his shop. “I told him that I would vote for him. ... Chris Toliver gave him his word.”

As Booker struggles to break out of a crowd of 24 Democratic presidential candidates — and move up in the polls that now have him at 2% in South Carolina — these moments at Toliver’s are the kind his campaign is banking on.

“When people engage Cory, it’s a no-brainer,” said Clay Middleton, Booker’s senior political adviser in South Carolina.

But Christopher Toliver later admitted he didn’t think Booker will be able to beat Biden in the state’s primary, a pessimism that speaks to the challenges Booker is facing — and the way his campaign’s trajectory seems to have gotten off course, according to allies and political observers alike.

Booker appeared to be doing everything right in South Carolina, they say.

When he declared his presidential candidacy on the first day of Black History Month in February, the U.S. senator from New Jersey made sure voters — and his primary opponents — knew he would be spending plenty of time in the “First in the South” primary state: The announcement video featured footage of Booker participating in South Carolina’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration from days earlier.

Days later, the former Newark mayor announced he was hiring some of South Carolina’s top Democratic political talent, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaign alums and veteran Clyburn aides.

A month later, in a serious vote of confidence, the chairman of the influential Charleston County Democratic Party stepped down to endorse Booker.

Booker was the first 2020 candidate to make trips to the state’s more remote, rural areas that other contenders sometimes neglect. He brought a national spotlight to a historically black university in Orangeburg when he chose it as the site of a CNN town hall.

He’s been to South Carolina eight times since entering the race and has planned a ninth visit before Labor Day.

Yet in a state where observers suggest Booker should be holding a winning deck of cards, he’s struggled more than some of his opponents to gain traction, as polls indicate.

Booker’s supporters are hoping this Wednesday’s second round of debates will give their candidate a chance to change that.

State Rep. Annie McDaniel, a Fairfield Democrat who has endorsed Booker, put it this way: “He probably will need to turn it up.”

‘Booker came to Union’

Booker’s supporters aren’t giving up yet.

It’s still too early to say who will win the S.C. primary on Feb. 29, insisted Middleton, who added that as Booker continues to make connections his standing in the state will strengthen.

Middleton also was dismissive of polling that puts Booker behind Biden and other perceived front-runners Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren — all U.S. senators — and even South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“As it relates to the polls, I don’t know that anyone in Union, Denmark, Simpsonville, Fairfield has been polled. These are places where the senator has been,” Middleton said. “Those are areas where you have not traditionally gotten people to call and get the pulse of what’s on the minds of folks.”

Among Democrats in Union County, for example, Booker is enormously popular, said Ann Stevens, the local party chairwoman. She said while other candidates have field organizers or representatives swing through the area, Booker is the only candidate who has visited Union since the 2020 campaign began, and it has not gone unnoticed.

“We have tried and reached out to different campaigns,” said Rosemary Rice, a county party executive committeewoman. “They go to Greenville, Spartanburg, Rock Hill. But Cory Booker came to Union.”

But Rice also spoke to the self-fulfilling prophecy of polls: They can generate excitement or they can turn people away. “(People) don’t want to get behind someone who they don’t think will win,” Rice said.

There are a few theories about Booker’s struggle to gain traction in South Carolina.

One explanation is that Booker, a black man, is stuck in the shadow of the country’s first black male president.

“The shadow is called Barack Obama and the impact it’s having on everybody,” Clyburn told The State this week. “So it’s an impact closer to (Booker) than anybody else.”

Another thought is Booker hasn’t made enough inroads with teachers, thousands of whom came out in full force against the South Carolina General Assembly’s attempts to overhaul state education policy. Many Democratic education voters have chafed at Booker’s support for voucher programs critics say takes money away from public schools.

Middleton said the S.C. campaign is currently looking for opportunities to put Booker in front of local teachers so that they understand his vision for supporting quality education.

Meanwhile, others worry Booker is not nearly aggressive enough on the campaign trail, offering niceties rather than zingers.

“A lot of times, decency does not get you press coverage,” offered Moses Bell, 64, a Fairfield County Councilman, who supports Booker. “It’s a strength, but it’s also a weakness.”

Michael Tyler, a national campaign spokesman for Booker, disagreed that his positive platform is a liability.

“What people want out of any candidate is someone who is going to be authentic,” Tyler said. “Cory is going to run this race for the presidency the same way he’s run every campaign throughout the entirety of his life. He’s not going to change who he is for any one political moment.”

But U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a fellow New Jersey Democrat who has endorsed Booker, said she was concerned.

“He’s such a nice person and he always speaks in terms of love and conciliation and things like that, and people want to know in addition to what you stand for, can you go toe-to-toe with this bully of a president?” she asked.

That’s a question on many S.C. Democratic voters’ minds, according to a recent Monmouth University Poll, which found 65% of Democratic voters prefer a candidate who can defeat Trump over a candidate aligned with their own beliefs.

Watson Coleman put it another way: “Will he kick (President Donald Trump) in the behind if he has to?”

‘We know Cory’

Booker could have a chance to prove himself in Michigan Wednesday during the second round of Democratic primary debates.

Though he was actually the first candidate to criticize Biden for citing his rapport with segregationists as an example of his ability to find common ground, it didn’t become a viral moment tantamount to that of Harris — the other well-known black candidate in the 2020 race — who went after Biden over his busing record during their first debate of the campaign.

This past week — first in a tweet, then a statement mentioning his rival by name — Booker appeared to offer a small preview of the more aggressive Booker to come when he joins Biden and Harris on the same debate stage.

“Joe Biden had more than 40 years to get this right,” Booker said Tuesday, moments after Biden released his criminal justice reform plan. “The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it.”

Still, Tyler, the national campaign spokesman, said Booker doesn’t need a “breakout” moment in the debates next week: he just needs to keep telling people who he is.

“What we’re really striving for ... is an introductory opportunity to introduce Cory to the widest possible audience in the debate,” he told The State. “The vast majority of voters still don’t know who he is.”

That fact, Tyler conceded, “is indicated in the polling.”

Tyler, Middleton and the rest of the team are working hard to make sure people get to know Booker.

Supporters throughout South Carolina have been opening up their homes to viewings of the documentary “Street Fight,” which chronicles Booker’s campaign to be the mayor of Newark. State Rep. McDaniel said Booker “pick(s) up support each time” it’s watched.

Friday, the campaign formally announced the hiring of the Rev. Aaron Bishop of Columbia’s Grace Christian Church as Booker’s faith outreach coordinator. Bishop recently hosted an event for Booker at his church in June with faith leaders from around South Carolina.

“He captivated that audience, he electrified that base, and I believe he captured not only votes, he captured communities, because these people came back as ambassadors of this campaign and said, ‘We know Cory,’ “ Bishop said.

Brady Quirk-Garvan — the 32-year-old, five-year chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party who left his position this spring to be an unpaid volunteer for the Booker campaign — is another case study in what Booker supporters say can happen when people get to meet their candidate.

Quirk-Garvan was on the ground for the election of the first Democrat to win the 1st Congressional District seat since 1981, and he saw a chance to help protect that seat against Republicans in 2020.

Then he met Booker.

“He scoops up our daughter and gives everyone a hug. It was that feeling of like, you’re a part of the family and here’s someone who is warm and welcoming,” Quirk-Garvan said. “I felt like I had found someone who not only did I believe in, but he was someone who inspired me and made me believe in the power of politics again, that politics can be a force for good.”

Booker entered the race in February. By early March, Quirk-Garvan had resigned his chairmanship.

“I didn’t want to be unbiased and sit on the sidelines for this cycle,” he said. “Arguably, (Charleston County) is one of the most important counties in the state. But, this to me was important enough to have an opinion.”

‘Headway, not headlines’

Booker’s next shot on the debate stage, on Wednesday could ultimately be a “defining moment” for Booker, said U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a Clyburn ally and a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman who hails from a critical swing state and whose endorsement is being sought.

“After the next debate, I think it will be crystal clear who the front-runners are and I don’t see any opportunity for those who are not the front-runners to overcome,” Butterfield told The State.

Novella Garrison of Union said she hopes Booker is able to stay in the race long enough to “shine” on future debate stages with fewer candidates competing for the limelight. But Garrison is also among the Booker supporters who do not want their candidate to adopt the same, combative posture Harris took as a way of standing out.

“I have not enjoyed the part where he’s become aggressive,” she said.

“I don’t know if I could support him” if Booker raised the bar to, say, mirror the confrontational style of Trump, said Fairfield Councilman Bell.

Even McDaniel, who said Booker needed to “turn it up” at the next debate, also said she “wouldn’t want him to raise the bar (so high that) people would say he’s an angry black man, overzealous, being nasty, some of the things that I’ve heard about Kamala. I don’t want someone to say that about my candidate.”

Middleton said Booker’s campaign hears plenty of feedback from S.C. supporters, but that the team is staying focused “on making headway, not headlines.

“That will be the difference in the final analysis: What campaign is making headway with voters and not focusing on the headlines,” he said.

In the meantime, Middleton said it’s “encouraging” that “in candid conversations, if Cory is not people’s first choice, he is certainly in their top three.”

Earlier this summer, however, when The State surveyed 29 S.C. Democratic black voters about their top choices for president, none listed Booker as a candidate they were currently considering.

Still, Booker surprised even Toliver when he suddenly became his first choice: He was originally No. 4, behind Biden, Sanders and Warren.

“He has put in a lot of hard work in the state of South Carolina,” Toliver said. “He is a wonderful person.”

Now, Booker just has climb other voters’ lists, too.

Asked whether she thought Booker could win the S.C. primary, Garrison gave a long pause.

“If people can get more time with him, if he can stay in this pack long enough ... I think it’s going to be very close.”

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.