Kamala Harris’ SC strategy? Court grassroots groups

As the Democratic candidates for president try to establish themselves in an increasingly crowded field, one contender is trying to corner the market on grassroots activists in the early primary state of South Carolina.

In interviews with nearly a dozen S.C. advocacy groups — many of them local chapters of national progressive organizations — representatives report they so far only have heard from the campaign of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

Harris’ strategy has been to reach out to these groups early, long before anyone is prepared to offer an endorsement, in hopes of laying the groundwork for future support.

In the meantime, Harris is getting to know the leaders of local organizations that identify as “progressive” or are, at the very least, traditionally sympathetic to Democratic causes.

These leaders might agree to host town halls or forums where she can spread her message. They also could be willing to send an email blast to their hundreds, if not thousands, of members to alert them of events that Harris is appearing at elsewhere.

“Kamala Harris knows that real progress can only start with the people, which is why she’s already engaged the grassroots across South Carolina,” said Jalisa Washington-Price, Harris’ S.C. state director. “We’re committed to keeping this campaign’s focus on the people and look forward to engaging progressive groups and activists by listening to them and their ideas to improve our country.”

So far, the strategy is paying off. Activists in the traditionally conservative state are excited about being courted, listened to and valued.

“We’re excited, as the new wave of progressive activists in South Carolina, to get to be on the ground floor with candidates, to ask specifically about positions,” said Julie Edwards, a co-chair of Indivisible Midlands, a local chapter of a national anti-Donald Trump advocacy group that emerged after the 2016 election.

Edwards, whose group has a roughly 1,400-member network, said she planned to meet with Harris’ South Carolina communications director soon to discuss what kind of support Indivisible Midlands could offer the Democrat’s campaign, particularly if it decides to make an endorsement.

Jacob Gamble, chief strategist of Lowcountry Students for Political Action, noted Harris tweeted support for the group’s recent demonstration at the S.C. State House in support of more gun-control laws. Then, Harris invited some of the group’s members to meet her backstage at a recent town hall in Columbia.

“It shows that she’s done her research, and she knows the state very, very well,” Gamble said. “It also shows us we’re doing a good job on our end, making noise and being noticed.”

Nicole Walker, a board member of SCforEd, said Harris’ campaign has reached out frequently to hear what that organization thinks of an education reform bill currently working through the S.C. legislature.

Walker said the Harris campaign has been using conversations with SCforEd as “a platform to learn more about the educational process here in South Carolina and the South … as they go back and work on Senator Harris’ education policy.”

“What they’ve said to us is, ‘It’s very important to the senator that we start respecting the (teaching) profession more,’ ” Walker said.

Walker said SCforEd won’t be making an endorsement, wanting to stay politically neutral. But, in the past, it has held town hall meetings and forums for political candidates, and it could do the same for Harris or other 2020 contenders. SCforEd’s Facebook group has more than 21,000 members, most of whom are teachers.

The Sanders effect

While being first to make contact with the groups might put Harris at advantage, it won’t guarantee her a victory in South Carolina’s “First in the South” primary on Feb. 29, 2020.

Organization leaders who have spoken with the Harris campaign note it is still early. They said they expect to hear from other candidates down the road, many of whom already have begun to lay the groundwork for making the right connections in the state.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has hired two entrenched operatives in S.C. politics to lead his state operation. They will ensure he gets connected to key, local civic leaders.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has refused to leave events until she has spoken to every attendee who wants a one-on-one interaction.

And U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., carved out time during a recent visit to eat lunch with Jaime Harrison, a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman on the verge of launching a high-profile campaign to unseat the state’s senior incumbent Republican U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham.

However, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, could have an edge in South Carolina among the progressive bloc, even with his later entry into the race.

Sanders has a built-in grassroots army in South Carolina in the form of the local chapter of Our Revolution, the national group that emerged after Sanders’ failed 2016 presidential bid to promote the self-described Democratic Socialist’s policies and ideals.

Lucero Mesa, Our Revolution South Carolina co-chair, said her group has been working diligently over the past few years to maintain S.C. support for Sanders. She and her team did outreach in advance of Sanders’ 2020 announcement to remind voters the senator was the original champion of “Medicare for All.” In March, the chapter will hold a forum on criminal justice reform in Charleston, an opportunity to tell voters how Sanders would tackle deficiencies in the prison system.

“Definitely, we are going to do everything to support his platform,” Mesa said.

“Being first has its big advantages, without a doubt,” state Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, said of Harris’ early engagement with S.C. activists. “But Bernie Sanders will benefit like none of the other candidates from Our Revolution and the people who fill Our Revolutions ranks.”

Of course, Sanders made a poor showing in 2016’s S.C. Democratic primary, losing to Hillary Clinton in a landslide, 74-26. Four years later, Sanders is likely to find himself on the ballot with perhaps a dozen other viable contenders, including others who are trying to claim the progressive mantle.

Even Bamberg, an Our Revolution board member, said that while he always will support Sanders, he still is deciding who to endorse officially this time around.

“I won’t go so far as to say they are competing for the progressive brand,” Bamberg said of the other Democratic candidates. Whoever wins the S.C. primary, “it will be because of other things, like, ‘I like their personality more. I like this particular aspect of them.’ ”

But Tega Cay City Council member Heather Overman — an organizer with Allies for All, who recently met with a Harris campaign staffer — said Harris was smart to start with the progressive bloc as she seeks to amass support in the state.

“That’s where you’re gonna win,” she said.

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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.