How 2020 Democrats are pursuing veteran voters in military-heavy SC | Palmetto Politics
GREENWOOD — After thanking U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris for coming to his “little town” Monday, Greenwood County Democratic chairman Charles Lewis told the presidential candidate how his veterans organization struggled to find his military records so he could qualify for benefits after leaving the Army National Guard.
Eventually, Lewis said he was forced to track down the documents himself. Harris said the story sounded all too familiar and promised to strengthen assistance for veterans if she wins in 2020.
“When our men and women are in service, it’s a tight system,” said Harris, D-Calif. “Paperwork follows everybody immediately. … And then you get discharged and all of a sudden you become anonymous. This is what happens every day. All of a sudden it’s, ‘Who are you?'”
Meanwhile in the Lowcountry, Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of former Vice President Joe Biden, spent her Veterans Day meeting with military families. Multiple other Democratic White House hopefuls released plans to streamline and strengthen benefits for members of the armed services once they return home.
Veterans have historically voted in large numbers for Republicans. Nearly 60 percent of veterans voted for GOP candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, according to AP VoteCast, even in a year when Democrats picked up seats around the country.
But many of the Democrats seeking the party’s nomination for president want to change that, in part by focusing on improving services for veterans.
“I believe that you earn a veteran’s vote by honoring their service but understanding that honoring their service is so much bigger than saying, ‘thank you for your service,’ and walking away,” Harris told reporters after her Greenwood roundtable. “It’s about actually doing the work of supporting them.”
It could be a particularly important voting bloc in the early-voting primary state of South Carolina.
The Palmetto State is home to more than 400,000 veterans, making up about 10 percent of the state’s adult population, around 4 percentage points higher than the national average, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
That means there are more veterans in South Carolina than the total number of people who voted in the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary, about 368,000.
Just a few blocks away from Harris’ roundtable, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, spoke later Monday at the Greenwood County GOP’s “Salute to Veterans” event, where the South Carolina Republican told reporters he was glad Harris was actively courting veteran voters — even thought it was for the opposing party.
“If you’re a veteran and both parties want your vote, you’ll be the biggest beneficiary,” Graham said. “But I’m proud of the Republican Party’s legacy when it comes to our national security, and I think President Trump’s greatest accomplishment is rebuilding the military. He’s done right by those who are serving and those who have served.”
The 2020 campaign marks the first time post-9/11 veterans are seeking the nation’s highest office themselves.
Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and deployed to Afghanistan in 2014. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, served two tours in the Middle East and remains a major in the Army National Guard.
U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, an Iraq War veteran, dropped out of the Democratic presidential race in August after his bid that particularly focused on outreach to veterans failed to gain any traction.
Before Harris’ event Monday, Moulton had held the only veterans-themed events of the campaign so far in South Carolina. Buttigieg attended a veterans roundtable with U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, in the lead-up to last year’s midterm elections — before he had launched his presidential bid.
Other candidates have sought to incorporate veterans in to their other policies, or emphasize the impact their policies would have on that community.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, for example, specifically noted that thousands of veterans commit suicide by firearms each year when he rolled out a plan in May to reduce gun violence that included appointing a federal coordinator, implementing federal gun licenses and allowing courts to temporarily remove guns from people considered an extreme risk.
Angela Kouters, the S.C. state director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, was the political director for veterans and military families in John Kerry’s 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, giving her experience integrating their issues into a campaign’s messaging and outreach.
Several veterans at Harris’ roundtable Monday said issues specifically dealing with veterans are just one piece of how they’re making up their minds about who to support in the Feb. 29 primary.
But Jerome Coleman, who served in the 51st Infantry Division and now lives in Johnston, said he is watching closely as the candidates lay out their plans for veterans and taking note of which ones are placing more of an emphasis on it.
“Post-traumatic stress is bad among us,” Coleman said. “One of the reasons so many people are committing suicide is because they’re looking for help and getting turned down. We need someone to get rid of all the red tape. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.