Politics & Government

Black voters decide the SC Democratic primary. Can Warren reach them in time?

It is widely known Elizabeth Warren was once a Sunday school teacher. Fewer people know the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate prays before every debate.

An even smaller circle knows that Warren’s longtime pastor, Miniard Culpepper, joins her on location for each of these debates so they can pray together.

“She is obviously a woman who is strong in faith and believes that her spiritual gift is ministering to not just the folks in Massachusetts but across the country and in some ways internationally,” Culpepper, a senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church near Boston, told The State.

This is the side of Warren that Democrats in South Carolina need to see, Culpepper said — specifically black Democrats.

African Americans make up two-thirds of the state’s Democratic Party primary electorate. According to Winthrop University’s recent survey, only 9% of that key constituency is currently going for Warren, the progressive U.S. senator from Massachusetts.

If Warren can’t do better at capturing the excitement of black voters, it won’t matter that she came in second place overall in that very same poll.

Culpepper, who is black, isn’t worried. He said it’s just a matter of time before Warren’s message lands with black South Carolina voters, who she’ll reach by tapping into the state’s ingrained, largely black faith community.

Warren has shared her story from a South Carolina pulpit at least once, at Reid Chapel AME Church in Columbia’s Greenview neighborhood.

Beyond the church, her catchphrase is that she has a “plan” for everything, and many of these plans — like closing the racial wealth gap and ensuring affordable housing — are pitched with black voters in mind.

And Wednesday, Warren co-hosted a town hall at S.C. State University, a historically black college, with U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn to sell their legislative proposal to provide student loan debt relief.

While not an official campaign event, it attracted loyal Warren voters.

“I know you said teaching was your dream job, but I hope you get your real dream job in 2020,” one woman, who identified herself as a graduate of HBCU Claflin University, told Warren from the microphone.

It may also have earned her new supporters.

“I like what Sen. Warren was saying,” about student debt and HBCU resources, said S.C. State freshman Obi Maijeh, 18. “She has a goal and wants to help us. We would really benefit from her in the future.”

These examples are what Warren’s allies point to, to bolster their argument that no one should count their candidate out yet.

But the reality is, Warren can’t win South Carolina’s primary without broad black support.

So far, she hasn’t been able to get it.

Now, with fewer than 140 days to go until the state’s Feb. 29 primary, it’s not clear whether Warren has a S.C. strategy that will help her succeed.

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‘What resonates’

Many of Warren’s supporters say they aren’t worried about her polling with black voters in South Carolina, largely because they reject the premise her campaign has a problem with this constituency to begin with.

“It’s terribly unfair,” U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, said of accusations that Warren is not attracting a diverse coalition, even though the Winthrop poll paints a different picture: of all the 2020 candidates, Warren has the highest support among South Carolina’s white Democrats at 29%.

The former chairman of the influential Congressional Progressive Caucus who endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, Grijalva insisted Warren’s base was “diversifying as we speak.

“Her economic message translates across brown, black, any line,” he said. “Just keep that message going. That’s what resonates.”

Theodore Johnson — a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School who wrote his doctoral dissertation on black voting behavior and is black — agreed Warren is saying all the right things.

“Her policy pitch, maybe more than any candidate, explicitly calls out racial disparities in almost everything she puts forward, and I think that is intentional and it’s a good strategy.”

Warren showcased that ability Wednesday as she toured Charleston’s historic, predominately-black Rosemont neighborhood and pitched her plan to help victims of climate change and industry.

“We can’t have environmental justice that is dictated out of Washington,” Warren told reporters as traffic roared from the nearby interstate. “Polluting industries and other problems have been over and over located nearest communities of color, and health impacts are felt every day, the property impacts (are felt) every day.”

But ultimately, Johnson said, Warren faces a huge disadvantage.

Older black voters who make up the majority of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina are gravitating toward former Vice President Joe Biden — the candidate who has the best name recognition, an association with the first black president, a 40-year record to draw from and an aura of electability when the party desperately wants to beat President Donald Trump.

In the recent Winthrop poll, Biden leads 2020 candidates in South Carolina with 37% support, and has by far the highest percentage of black support at 46%.

“They all have good points,” said Rosemont resident Garry Wilkinson, 62, of the 2020 contenders. “But we have to select somebody who is going to win. I’m not so issue oriented as I am, ‘we need to defeat Trump.’ That’s my issue. Get him out of there. I think the best person to do that is Biden.”

Warren’s supporters counter that victories in Iowa and New Hampshire will alleviate concerns about her viability and mass appeal.

“Black voters are very sophisticated voters,” said Maurice Mitchell, the president of the Working Families Party, which endorsed Warren. “It wasn’t until Barack Obama won Iowa that many black voters made a decision (to support) him. … They weren’t sure if white America was ready for a black president.

“When people see how she performs in the two earliest contests,” Mitchell, who is black, continued, “that is going to have an impact on South Carolina and on voters, no question.”

Sam Johnson, a black Democrat with a history of involvement in S.C. politics and has no plans to endorse, disagreed.

“I like Warren,” he said. “But I don’t think she can get the base that you’d have to have to win. She can do well in Iowa, she can do well in New Hampshire, but I don’t think she can build the type of support that you need in South Carolina to really own it.”

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Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts addresses a crowd at Clinton College, an HBCU in Rock Hill, S.C., Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

‘I’m showing up’

Another common theme among Warren’s supporters is the more black S.C. voters get to know her, the more they’ll fall in love with her.

In addition to her policy platform, she has a personal brand of retail politics that resonates — an asset Warren’s campaign plans to highlight in South Carolina.

Mitchell said that for black voters who often feel neglected during a campaign season until the Sunday before an election, they appreciate that Warren is going the extra mile to make connections early on, never leaving an event until she has taken a photo with every single person who wants one.

State Rep. Kambrell Garvin, a black Democrat from Richland who was already interested in Warren for her student debt forgiveness proposal, was won over when Warren called personally to congratulate Garvin and his wife on recently graduating law school.

“It was the personal touch in addition to her policy proposals that sealed the deal,” Garvin said. “She made a nonbeliever a believer.”

Still, Garvin said the onus was on Warren to invest more time in South Carolina if she intends to win.

“I’ve expressed this several times with the organization: Sen. Warren will have to continue to make that time investment in South Carolina. When she continues to do that, her message will continue to resonate.”

State Rep. Wendy Brawley, another black Richland Democrat who has endorsed Warren, agreed.

“Every time Elizabeth Warren gets in front of an audience, she wins people over,” she said. “As more people hear her message, particularly African Americans, they will be drawn to her message and support her.”

Warren’s backers all said without equivocation that she will be spending more time in South Carolina between now and the primary.

And in Charleston Wednesday, Warren appeared to concede that being physically present in South Carolina was the key to overcoming Biden’s advantage.

“I’m showing up,” said Warren, when asked specifically how she was working to catch up to Biden. “Because I think that’s really important. Showing up and shaking hands and talking with people.”

Yet since she announced her presidential candidacy back in February, Warren has made only eight stops in South Carolina.

She’s scheduled to participate in her ninth S.C. event at the end of the month — a criminal justice reform symposium at Columbia’s Benedict College, an HBCU — but her campaign has not been clear on whether she plans to aggressively increase her visibility in the state going forward.

Though the campaign has said it will open more field offices in the state later this year beyond its current nine, it has not announced a timetable for doing so.

Warren also has not engaged prominent surrogates to campaign for her in South Carolina in her absence, leaving a void on the ground of supporters who can gin up excitement while she’s stumping elsewhere.

When asked to explain Warren’s S.C. strategy, her campaign said she has been pairing specific policy pitches with the issues facing the communities hosting her events — environmental concerns in coastal Charleston, expanding broadband access in rural Aiken.

Because she isn’t holding fundraisers on the road, her campaign said she could devote all her time in South Carolina to meeting with voters, “including hours-long selfie lines.”

But in an email to The State, Warren’s campaign added, “We know that the more voters hear from her/about her/why she’s in this fight — the more they like her.”

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U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, speaks to reporters with state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, in the Rosemont neighborhood in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019. Maayan Schechter mschechter@thestate.com

‘Wouldn’t count her out’

S.C. Democrats who aren’t endorsing in the 2020 primary say despite Biden’s lead, the contest is far from over.

“I caution all candidates: things in the rear are closer than they appear,” state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said Wednesday in Rosemont, standing beside Warren. “It’s a wide open race.”

Kenneth Glover, chairman of the Orangeburg County Democratic Party, said Warren’s message might actually be sticking.

“I’m starting to see a flame being lit in communities,” he said after the S.C. State town hall. “I wouldn’t count her out.”

One of Warren’s recent converts in South Carolina is Renee Graham, Rep. Brawley’s aunt and a 70-year-old grandmother.

She was not initially sold on Warren, thinking Biden had a more solid chance of beating Trump. But she came to hear Warren speak at Rock Hill’s Clinton College, an HBCU, in September, and was overtaken by her energy and enthusiasm.

Wearing a T-shirt that read, “Pray more, worry less,” Graham waited to grab a photo with the senator.

“She saw my shirt,” Graham said of Warren. “She said, ‘Pray for us.’ I said, ‘Of course.’ She’s my woman.”

Back in Boston, the Rev. Culpepper is confident Warren’s spiritual background will help her make connections like these across South Carolina.

Having already accompanied Warren on one recent visit to Aiken, Culpepper said he would start spending more time in the state meeting with different faith leaders to spread the word about her candidacy.

“As folks realize who she is — a Christian woman — they will really gravitate toward her in a big way,” Culpepper insisted.

Sam Johnson agreed with others who said Warren’s campaign isn’t in dire straits in South Carolina: “She’s still trying to be competitive.

“But,” he cautioned, “I haven’t seen her here as much as I would think you need to be to win.”

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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.
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