For an SC Dem used to being snubbed, her quest to take on Lindsey Graham is personal

In South Carolina, where the Democratic electorate is heavily made up of black women, one African American female candidate has a long history of being snubbed by state and national party leaders.

Even now, heading into a presidential election year on the wings of a midterm cycle that catapulted a record number of women into political positions, it’s not looking like that’s going to change.

Gloria Bromell Tinubu is currently in the midst of her fourth campaign in seven years for elected office in South Carolina — this time a bid to win the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020.

To win that right, she has to beat Jaime Harrison, a former state party chairman who officially entered the race on Wednesday.

Harrison, who is also African American, is well known and well loved inside the state and in Washington, where party leaders made it clear they’ll support him in the primary and pour money into his race should he win the nomination. Washington Democrats were, in fact, supporting him before he even declared his candidacy, and before the primary field had solidified.

In a recent interview with McClatchy, Bromell Tinubu — a former professor at Coastal Carolina University and a 2018 candidate for lieutenant governor — expressed frustration, but also resignation.

“I’m not surprised they would get behind a former lobbyist connected to big money,” she said of the Washington establishment’s support for Harrison, currently an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a former top aide on Capitol Hill to U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. “I’m very disappointed, but not surprised.”

Of the national party, she said, “the only time they have really come out behind a woman candidate here for Congress is when that person was connected to a celebrity.”

She was referring to Elizabeth Colbert-Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert, who in a 2013 special election ran unsuccessfully for South Carolina’s 1st District seat in the U.S. House.

But the dynamics of this current race are not unlike those which played out in Bromell Tinubu’s first race seven years ago.

A South Carolina native with a doctorate in economics and a record of service in the Georgia General Assembly, Bromell Tinubu moved back home in 2012 to run for the newly-drawn 7th District congressional seat. That year, the national Democratic Party was giddy over the possibility of picking up another seat. However, Democratic leaders in Washington and in South Carolina saw the men in the race as more promising, and Bromell Tinubu was dismissed as not viable — even when she won her primary.

This makes her current race against Harrison particularly personal.

‘I want change’

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, who in 2012 was the chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said Wednesdayhe could understand “why she might have some raw feelings now.”

But, he said, Bromell Tinubu had only herself to blame.

“People pick candidates based on who they think will be the best candidate in November,” Harpootlian explained. “She got nominated (in 2012), but she did not deliver because she didn’t have the funding. She didn’t have the support.”

Bromell Tinubu sees things differently. She recalls a scenario where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was eager to win the new S.C. seat and had it on a list of districts in which to invest.

However, Bromell Tinubu added, that was when the DCCC expected Ted Vick, then a state representative, or Preston Brittain, an attorney, to win the nomination.

Vick ultimately withdrew from the race after a drunk driving incident, but since his name was not removed from the primary ballot, he drew votes away from Brittain, and Bromell Tinubu won. At that point, Harpootlian, on behalf of the state party, took legal action to secure a primary run-off — a move largely viewed as sympathetic to Brittain.

Yet despite being given a second chance, Brittain still lost to Bromell Tinubu, at which point the DCCC walked away. She lost to Republican Tom Rice, now the incumbent congressman who also beat her in a 2014 rematch.

“We communicated with them, talked to them, to no avail,” Bromell Tinubu recalled of her campaign’s efforts to appeal to the DCCC at the time.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would make for a compelling narrative on the campaign trail. The 2018 midterms ushered in a new independent streak in the Democratic Party, with voters around the country eager to elect not only women members of Congress but those who came up outside the mainstream.

Eunice “Tootsie” Holland, an 87-year-old women’s rights activist in Columbia and a longtime Bromell Tinubu supporter, said Harrison’s support from establishment Democrats spoke volumes to the kind of candidate he’d be and the kind of candidate Bromell Timubu wouldn’t be.

“I think Jaime is a very fine young man,” Holland said of the 43-year-old Harrison. “I have no problems with Jaime except that he is into the old line Democratic Party and they’re supporting him 100 percent, but I don’t want to go back to the same old thing. I want change before I kick the bucket.”

Women at the other end of the generational spectrum also like what Bromell Tinubu, 66, stands for — in the words of Tre’Dessa Smalls, a 22-year-old rising senior at Furman Unviersity, “a powerful black woman speaking a message of hope.”

But Holland, Smalls and other supporters of Bromell Tinubu have to contend with another reality: The necessity for southern Democrats running in statewide elections to embrace all the outside help they can get.

‘A nice narrative’

Harrison has spoken often of the need to look beyond South Carolina to attract buzz and raise money.

“There are not a lot of deep pockets to fund multimillion dollar campaigns in the state,” Harrison told McClatchy back in February, days before he announced his potential Senate candidacy. “Raising money outside of South Carolina ... is going to be a necessity.”

Even Bromell Tinubu recently conceded that she’s running in a state “where we know that incomes are low and people don’t have the big money to donate as in other states, like New York and California.”

Harrison, so far, is the primary beneficiary of outside support. Last Wednesday, while still an “exploratory” candidate, he traveled to Washington to attend a fundraiser being held on his behalf — one where Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto promised institutional backing.

“We’ve got to make sure he’s got the money he needs to get his message out,” the Nevada lawmaker told attendees, according to a recording of her remarks obtained by McClatchy. “We’ll be there, we’ll be working with him. We’ll be there with boots on the ground and organizing and getting out that vote.”

A week and one day later, on the heels of Harrison’s formal campaign launch, Cortez Masto released a statement with a formal endorsement, effectively icing out other potential contenders months before the deadline to file for candidacy.

In any other race, in an age where insurgent candidates are being embraced, it might not make for the best optics that Harrison is being all but anointed by Washington power players.

“I really believe that citizens of this state are not going to stand by and let any group outside of this state dictate who should represent them,” Bromell Tinubu said.

Republicans are also piling on, with Hope Walker, executive director of the South Carolina GOP, tweeting that the DSCC’s endorsement was a “slap in the face” to Bromell Tinubu.

Still, Democrats in South Carolina want to win, and critics of the national party’s actions could be underestimating the extent to which voters see Harrison as their greatest chance at taking out Graham, a deeply-entrenched incumbent with millions of dollars in the bank and a loyalty to President Donald Trump independents might find alienating.

For supporters, Harrison represents the best of both worlds: The ties to Washington power players and their checkbooks, and the connections to South Carolinians who have worked with him on state party-building efforts for years. South Carolina Democrats will probably be able to forgive Harrison’s embrace of the national spotlight if it can help lead to a victory, and as long as Harrison doesn’t forget to come back home.

“Jaime Harrison has a lifetime of working in the trenches in South Carolina, so I would take issue with the characterization of Washington bosses just picking somebody,” said Harpootlian. “That’s a nice narrative but it’s not true.”

Harpootlian said he won’t be making an endorsement between Harrison and Bromell Tinubu, but, he conceded, “I have my preference.”

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.