The High Stakes for Kamala Harris in the South Carolina Primary
As is tradition, this year’s Democratic gathering in South Carolina was unofficially kicked off last Friday by Jim Clyburn’s World Famous Fish Fry. The event, where the House Majority Whip serves up big steaming trays of fried white fish on white bread for free (with your choice of sauces: hot, tartar, or mustard), had humble beginnings as an alternative for Democratic volunteers and delegates who, in the early nineties, couldn’t afford the state Party’s pricey annual dinner. For years, the stakes were low, the speeches largely beside the point. Candidates came to pay homage to Clyburn, crack some bad jokes (Cory Booker: “Let’s not flounder; let’s get out there and kick some bass!”), and mingle with local politicos, rank-and-file Democrats, and journalists. This year, a few thousand people turned out in ninety-degree heat, and the conga line of contenders—twenty-one in total, including the mayor of Miramar, Florida, Wayne Messam—meant that each one, introduced in turn by Clyburn, had just a minute for his or her spiel.
Clyburn helped save the night by being in vintage form, jovially introducing the candidates with his characteristically eccentric pronunciations (Beto O’Rook, Jule-e-un Castro) and unreliable biographical details (“John Hickenlooper from California,” he called out, before the candidate came onstage to make his pitch about how he’d do for America what he’d done for Colorado). Only Kamala Harris, whom Clyburn called “a good friend, whose name I know how to pronounce,” managed to command the full attention of the milling, chatting throng when she said, “I’m-a take us down for a minute,” and praised the legacy of the Emanuel Nine, who were murdered by a white supremacist four years ago this month, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
It was just the kind of moment she needed. The stakes for the weekend, with the state Democratic Convention and a Planned Parenthood forum on Saturday, were perhaps the highest of Harris’s Presidential bid thus far. She, more than any other contender, will have her campaign lifted or perhaps permanently deflated by what happens in South Carolina, in the fourth primary contest—and first in the South—on February 29th. Just three days later will come Super Tuesday, where all of Harris’s other hopes are invested: California will vote on March 3rd, along with five Southern states, where she’ll hope to ride her success with black voters in South Carolina to strong showings, if not victories. With Harris finding herself mostly stagnant in national polls, hovering in the high single digits since her initial bump from a big and impressive campaign launch, in Oakland, there’s no other path to the nomination.
So far, the polling in South Carolina has lined up almost perfectly with the Party’s national averages: Joe Biden is way ahead, with Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren in a second-place cluster, and Harris and Booker somewhere in the mid-to-high single digits. But only a small handful of the dozens of delegates and civilian Democrats I spoke with over the weekend had their minds made up. If “they’re all good” and “Oh, Lord, I have no idea” were offered as choices in the next South Carolina poll, they would probably win a majority of the respondents.
South Carolina has long been the first state where black voters have not only a voice but a deciding one—a fact first made clear in 1988, when Jesse Jackson proved that he was a legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination with a sweeping victory in the state on Super Tuesday. Four years ago, when Hillary Clinton crushed Bernie Sanders in South Carolina and exposed his weakness among African-American voters, sixty-one per cent of those who turned out were black, up from fifty-five per cent when Barack Obama beat Clinton, in 2008. Harris has made a serious investment in South Carolina, already hiring organizers in every part of the state. She’s held more than thirty events, the most of any candidate, except Booker—by comparison, Biden has held only eight events—but there’s little sign of it providing a boost for either candidate. One state operative called it “the greatest mystery to me” that Harris and Booker’s efforts haven’t yet borne fruit in the polling.
But there’s little reason for Harris to rethink her intensive focus on South Carolina. Like Democrats in Florida and Georgia, the Party has launched major voter registration and turnout efforts in recent elections—in the 2018 midterms, Democrats won almost 270,000 more votes than four years earlier. And with more than two hundred and fifty thousand eligible black voters remaining unregistered, according to the state Democratic Party, there’s still room for growth. When Obama won here in 2008, the Party was still mostly run by whites, and Democrats were clinging to the notion that they could only win with socially conservative messages. At this year’s convention, a long list of mostly black state legislators, many of them young, delivered uncompromisingly progressive speeches between the Presidential spiels. The more bluntly liberal the rhetoric—about abortion rights, L.G.B.T. freedoms, gun control, or racially unjust law-enforcement practices—the better it was received. The most highly touted Democratic candidate for 2020 is Jaime Harrison, formerly the first African-American state Party chair, who is running for Senate with the hopes of challenging the incumbent, Republican Lindsey Graham, in the general election. Harrison’s campaign placards and volunteers were ubiquitous. The last time the Party tried to field a candidate to run against Graham, in 2014, it had trouble finding anyone willing to be a sacrificial lamb, and ended up with a little-known white state senator. This time, Harrison—a dynamic campaigner who got the fish-fry crowd laughing when he called Graham “the most well-off golf caddy in America”—has primary competition from another African-American activist, the economist Gloria Bromell Tinubu.
“We are not that backward state anymore,” Tim Lewis, an ex-Marine and Charleston resident who ran for county council last year, told me. I ran into him late on Saturday, at a post-convention gathering for Booker, whom he said he “loves” but hasn’t yet committed to. Lewis had fairly recently moved back home, after twenty years away, to care for his brother, who was dying of cancer, and his ninety-three-year-old mother. He had a fresh view of how much South Carolina, and its Democrats, had evolved in those two decades.
“In South Carolina, the flag is down,” Lewis said, referring to the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds, in 2015, in the wake of the Emanuel massacre. “I tell you, we’re not that state that was under that flag. And I think there is a progressive movement, or at least a breaking-out-of-the-box movement, here, as well. You see a lot of young people now.” He added, “They feel like there’s something to win now.”
Every leading Presidential candidate had a point to prove in Columbia. Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders, who was badly damaged in 2016 by his anemic showing with black voters in South Carolina, needed to find ways to show that they had demonstrable black support, and to find new ways to ask for more. For Buttigieg, the shooting death of a black civilian at the hands of a white police officer in South Bend, and the protests against his handling of law enforcement and race more broadly as mayor, created a painfully awkward scenario in Columbia—in front of the mostly black delegates, with MSNBC and more than a hundred and fifty credentialled reporters amplifying everything. He skipped the fish fry on Friday to take flak from furious citizens in South Bend. Early on Saturday afternoon, Buttigieg showed up to deliver his convention speech, looking like a very tired thirty-seven-year-old. After some opening greetings and pleasantries, Buttigieg came to what was on everybody’s mind. “I’m with you after a challenging week back home,” he said, after “a tragic shooting of a resident of our community by a police officer.” I watched delegates look at each other. Some whispered. “It is as if one member of our family died at the hands of another,” Buttigieg said.
Joe Biden, unlike the others, had probably figured the weekend would amount to an early victory lap. Instead, he arrived with his third Presidential campaign confronting its first mini-crisis. Amid signs of a slow decline in his polling numbers, the former Vice-President had invited trouble by lauding the segregationist Senator James O. Eastland, of Mississippi, for not calling him “boy” when Biden was young and, by his own account, happily collaborating with the likes of him and Herman Talmadge, Eastland’s ideological doppelgänger from Georgia. Biden, as he and his loyalists would soon be protesting, was intending to offer a heartwarmingly specific example of the old-style, let’s-get-things-done collegiality in Washington that he witnessed as a young senator. But his examples had been poorly chosen, especially heading into South Carolina, where many Party elders still remember that Biden eulogized the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, the state’s seemingly eternal segregationist senator, in 2003. Biden had called Thurmond a “special man,” “a gift to us all” who was, sadly but inevitably, a “product of his time.”
In the view of the delegates and strategists I interviewed, Biden’s pole position is anything but secure, even if it helps him that Harris and Booker are fighting for some of the same African-American votes, as Sanders and Warren split the white progressives. “He’s liked in South Carolina, but he’s not well-liked, if that makes any sense,” the state operative told me. Dominique Sawyer, a local middle-school counsellor, told me at the fish fry that “Biden definitely has some explaining to do, but we’re all people, and sometimes in the moment we’re not always our best selves.” She added, “I do think it’s a perfect opportunity for Biden to show he’s seen his mistakes and is ready to move past them this weekend. We’ll see what he does with it.”
Biden was the second candidate that Clyburn called onstage, after most of the fish had been dished out. Biden hugged the Whip, smiled on cue, and praised Clyburn effusively, but what came of his mouth after that was a sign of things to come. “I’ll tell you what,” Biden said, “I do miss Fritz [Hollings] being here.” This wasn’t an entirely inappropriate or unexpected remark; Biden had eulogized South Carolina’s former Democratic governor and senator, who was his good friend, when he passed away in April. But many fish-fry attendees were too young to get the reference; Hollings had died as the oldest living ex-senator, and had retired from Washington way back in 2005. He wasn’t a segregationist, at least, by the time he got to the Senate, but nobody would have mistaken him for a twenty-first-century progressive. For a candidate who needed, more than anything, to turn the clock forward, the Hollings lament was a surprising way to kick off the weekend. As he left the stage, hugging Clyburn again, Biden raised his arms in mock-triumph and loudly quipped, “I did it in a minute!” But he left to polite applause after entering to cheers.
Saturday was worse. In his convention-closing speech, Biden had the bad luck of following a rousing address by Booker, whose young supporters led a loud demonstration, stomping along to “C-O-R-Y, Cory Booker is the guy” chants and waving smiling, oversized Cory-head cutouts in front of the stage. Booker didn’t mention the criticism he had made of Biden over his comments about the old Senate segregationists, but his speech started out borrowing from Martin Luther King, Jr., and ended the same way. “Beating Donald Trump gets us out of the valley,” Booker said, announcing his theme, “but it does not get us to the mountaintop.” In closing, Booker asked folks to “dream with me again” and ended by saying, “We will make it to the mountaintop, and we will get it to the promised land.” Most of the delegates rose to their feet, cheering and lifting up amens. Biden had no band, no cutout heads, no drums—just a couple of dozen cheering organizers and volunteers, holding up his signs on the far-right aisle of the convention floor and trying to start up a chant. “Give me a B . . .” fizzled quickly. And, although Biden had entered to a near-standing ovation, he shushed the enthusiasm after just a couple of beats. “My time’s running, I’m sorry,” Biden said, gesturing for folks to have a seat. “I never like to cut off cheers, but . . .”
Before his convention speech, Biden had come in for some pointed questioning at the Planned Parenthood forum, which was held across the street. When one of the two moderators, Kelley Robinson, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, asked Biden to speak to voters who might be concerned about his “mixed record” on abortion, he objected to the question. “I’m not sure about the ‘mixed record’ part,” Biden shot back. “I’ve had a hundred per cent voting record—” At that point, his microphone cut out. When it came back on, Biden hastened to change the subject to health care more generally.
Now, in his final opportunity to tell black South Carolinians what they needed to hear, Biden began by meditating again on how much he missed Hollings. He then fast-forwarded through his policy agenda, point by point, until his time was up—speed-reading his way through a longer speech, it seemed, and never stopping for applause lines. He made no reference to the Eastland controversy. And, although his was only an eight-minute speech, halfway through, several delegates, folks who who’d sat all day listening politely to the likes of Tulsi Gabbard and Eric Swalwell, stood up and walked out.
On the morning of the convention, you could hear the percussive thumps a hundred yards away from the big white slab of downtown Columbia’s Metropolitan Convention Center. Inside, down the escalator to the convention floor, a drum line from Lower Richland High School was in full flight, every strike echoing through the corridors and overwhelming the chants of the fifty or so people with purple and yellow placards, shouting, “Ka-ma-la, Ka-ma-la!” California’s first-term senator and former prosecutor “for the people,” as the campaign motto on her multicolored placards says, is best known among national Democrats for grilling Trumpland characters in Senate hearings with stern efficiency. When Harris finally emerged from an official-looking S.U.V. outside the main entrance, she brushed off her gray-checked suit, swept back the right side of her hair, and then, hearing the beat, grinned and nodded and broke into some pretty convincing dance moves.
Harris drum-walked her way into a pre-convention rally, where Jesse Jackson stood off to the side of the stage, grinning like a proud uncle. After another burst of dancing and mock-orchestrating of the drummers, Harris told the volunteers about her first campaign, for San Francisco district attorney, in 2002. She was warned that she shouldn’t run against the Democratic incumbent, and had been assured that she couldn’t win, but, as she said, “I eat ‘no’ for breakfast.” She paused for the whoops and cheers before picking the story back up. “Often, I would campaign with my ironing board,” she said with a sly smile. “Now, you’re wondering, ‘Where’s she going with that?’ ” She chuckled, and then explained that it “made a great standing desk” for when she would set herself up outside of grocery stores and the like, and “make people talk to me when they came out.”
Harris’s weekend in Columbia checked all the boxes. Her organization looked sharp. Her supporters made noise. She appeared impeccably prepared for every setting and never made a misstep, which wasn’t surprising. But for those who hadn’t seen Harris during a campaign, who only knew her from Senate hearings and cable news, her persona—laughing a lot, mixing prosecutorial talk (“I know how to make the case against this President”) with “let’s get real now” colloquialisms—was a bit unexpected. So was the way that she was making her case, emphasizing policy less than broader themes with personal stories attached. At the Planned Parenthood forum on Saturday morning, Harris talked about her immigrant mother, “this five-foot-tall brown woman” who was actually an accomplished breast-cancer researcher, and how people had treated and regarded her. Then Harris presented her canny proposal to require voting-rights-style “preclearance” for changes to reproductive-rights laws in states like South Carolina. (Under the plan, basically, no new restrictions could go into effect until they’d been pre-approved, if they come from states with recent records of passing laws that violate protections under Roe.)
“We all know this is an inflection moment,” Harris said as she began her convention speech. She was talking about the country writ large, but she was clearly hoping that it was also true politically—that Biden’s bad week, and her good weekend, had begun to change the momentum in South Carolina. Although Harris, who’d sharply criticized Biden’s longing for the good old days of the Senate earlier in the week, didn’t directly reference the controversy over the weekend, she finished her speech by calling on the Democrats to “see what can be, unburdened by what has been.”
South Carolina is the place where Barack Obama, in 2007, first heard an elderly woman in a small town call out, at an early-morning rally, “Fired up! Ready to go!” Harris doesn’t have a story like that, yet, but her hopes to follow in his path and use South Carolina as a springboard for the nomination looked a lot less far-fetched after Democratic Weekend. Late on Saturday evening, Tim Lewis, the former Marine from Charleston, had got to the heart of what, aside from its strategic spot on the schedule, makes South Carolina such an important race in the 2020 primaries. “I’m a lot like my brothers and sisters in Alabama, a lot like my brothers and sisters in Georgia, a lot like my brothers and sisters in North Carolina, a lot like my brothers and sisters in Florida—except around Miami,” he said, laughing. “There are a lot of similar legacies. So being first in the South is a litmus test, you know? It’s taking the temperature, taking a reading. How are you doing with young people, with black people? Here you will find out.”