Inez Tenenbaum got a call from the Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago.
“We had a very nice talk about issues important to her and to me,” said Tenenbaum, a former Democratic S.C. superintendent of education and Obama administration official, and a supporter of a potential Vice President Joe Biden presidential bid until he decided not to run.
“I pledged my support to her (Clinton) that day,” Tenenbaum told The State newspaper last week, thus becoming the latest influential S.C. Democrat to back the candidate most likely to become the party’s nominee.
Clinton has been building a strong campaign network in the state. Her coalitions include Democratic mayors, state legislators, women and grassroots activists.
Leading in early nominating states’ contests, Clinton has her greatest advantage in South Carolina’s Democratic primary at 50-percentage points. That makes the Palmetto State a firewall for Clinton if she happens to lose in Iowa and New Hampshire, whose voters are the first and second to pick their preferred nominee.
Clinton’s campaign coffers also are swamping her opponents.
But while Clinton has clear advantages over her opponents, some S.C. Democrats are placing their bets elsewhere – preferring to back the underdog U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
And some Palmetto State donors who gave the most to Obama’s two presidential bids have not yet given to Clinton, which could be a sign of her strength and that of allied super PACS, or a lack of enthusiasm to invest in the campaign, some S.C. Democrats said.
S.C. Rep. James Smith, a Richland Democrat who also wanted Biden to run, said no matter how the candidates are doing in the polls, state Democratic voters will back the candidates they like best.
“We’ve never been a party that just gets in line,” he said.
‘Ready to lead on day one’
Clinton’s campaign has won backing from many prominent Democrats and progressive leaders in the Palmetto State.
Among her supporters are two former S.C. governors – Jim Hodges and Dick Riley – and former U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a York attorney who was a ranking Democrat after serving 28 years in Congress.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and outgoing Charleston Mayor Joe Riley also have endorsed Clinton, along with other African-American and Democratic mayors and legislators across the state.
Don Fowler, a former National Committee chairman and one of the state’s three members of the Democratic National Committee, has been a longtime Clinton supporter.
Antjuan Seawright, a Clinton supporter and political consultant, said, “Democrats in the South and Democrats across the country realize it is critically important that we elect someone who is ready to lead on day one.”
O’Malley’s and Sanders’ campaigns have not generated the same excitement Clinton’s campaign has, he added.
“Minus the creek rising, I don’t see how they catch up.”
Seeking an alternative
Some Palmetto State Democrats say they are backing O’Malley or Sanders because they want an alternative to Clinton – whose years spent in Washington as a first lady, a U.S. senator and then as the secretary of state make her part of the Beltway establishment, some said.
State Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence, supported Clinton in ’08, but now is backing Sanders, though not because he dislikes Clinton. The African-American legislator recently told The State newspaper that Sanders’ message is more in line with the needs of working people and minorities.
Backing O’Malley is state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw – the 2010 and 2014 Democratic nominee for governor who had help from O’Malley on the campaign trail.
“The more that this race progresses, the question is, do we look to the past or do we look to the future?” Sheheen said.
“O’Malley is the candidate that represents the future. ... He has spent the last decade dealing with problems that affect everyday people.”
Other Democratic presidential candidates, Sheheen added, “have been part of the Washington establishment.”
Clinton is “stuck in the ’80s and ’90s, and we live in an entirely new world now,” said Boyd Brown, a Democratic National Committeeman and co-chair of O’Malley’s S.C. campaign.
“Her husband’s administration did great things for the country, but those days are over,” Brown added.
Brown also said he does not want to see Clinton elected because he’s “tired of giving the United States Congress an excuse not to work.”
Clinton has been the subject of several congressional inquiries into her role as secretary of state and use of a private email server. A federal inquiry into her emails continues.
Clinton likely would draw more opponents to call for probes into the alleged “unethical practices of the Clinton family,” Brown said.
“The day Hillary Clinton gets elected, we’re a divided country for another four years.”
State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, disagreed with the idea that Clinton would draw insurmountable opposition, but not Sanders or O’Malley.
“If it were 25 years ago, you could say maybe that holds some weight,” said Jackson, who backed Clinton in 2008 and is backing her in the upcoming primary.
“But I assure you, there is no Democrat that will win that the Republicans will fall in love with.”
The Pee Dee is waiting
Some S.C. Democrats are in no rush to endorse any candidate, waiting for the campaigns to visit their communities and hear from voters.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, another former Biden backer, said he is waiting for Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley to campaign more actively in the Pee Dee, which includes the Darlington Democrat’s state Senate district.
Rural parts of the state face challenges in education and infrastructure that more urban parts of the state do not face – challenges he hopes will be a focus of the candidates and the next president, he said.
The best way for candidates to learn about the challenges of rural communities is to “put eyes on it whenever they can,” he said.
Smith, the Richland Democrat and former Biden backer, may stay out of the primary altogether.
“Secretary Clinton brings some very important experience to the race, particularly in the aftermath of the series of (terrorist) attacks” in Paris, Smith said. “Her experience is going to be important” as she makes the case for becoming the next president.
But, Smith said, he “might sit out and wait to support the eventual nominee.”
Uninspired, or looking for the outsider
Clinton has a clear cash advantage over her opponents, having raised $76 million through September, compared to Sanders’ $39 million and O’Malley’s $3.2 million. (Candidates will report contributions from 2015’s final quarter in January.)
About $325,000 of Clinton’s donations have come from S.C. donors, who gave Obama about $5 million for his 2008 and 2012 campaigns combined.
Seven of Obama’s top 25 S.C. donors had not given to Clinton by the end of September.
Some are not opening their wallets because they are not excited about the candidates.
“I typically have gotten involved in the primaries when I had some sort of inspirational attachment to it,” said Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, an Obama backer and critic of Clinton who had hoped Biden would run.
The eventual nominee is “going to be Clinton,” he predicted. “She’s going to win.”
But without Biden running, Harpootlian said he has not been inspired to donate money or knock on doors as he has in previous presidential campaigns.
Joe Nochman, a Columbia architect who does consulting work overseas, gave more than $7,000 to Obama for his 2008 and 2012 campaigns – putting Nochman in the top 25 S.C. donors to Obama’s campaign.
Nochman also has not given to Clinton.
Instead, he is leaning toward Sanders, who embodies much of the message of “hope and change” that Obama promised, he said.
“This is the year of the outsider,” Nochman said, adding that Sanders has been an outsider as an Independent from Vermont. “I’ll certainly support Clinton if she becomes the nominee. But she seems more like the status quo choice, more of an establishment candidate.”
One Democratic donor said he likes Clinton just fine. But the candidate – backed by super PAC money and her own fundraising successes – does not need as much help as Obama did when he first ran for president, said Columbia’s Hayes Mizell.
Having given almost $8,000 to Obama’s two presidential campaigns, Mizell said the former U.S. senator’s historic campaign was exciting for people like him who were civil rights activists decades ago.
“I’m not any big-time donor financially, but that motivated me to give more than I usually would give” to a candidate, he said.
“In Mrs. Clinton’s case, she has a lot of assets going for her at this time that Obama did not have” eight years ago, he said. “She’s a well-known figure. She’s got a strong public track record. She is running an historic candidacy in her own right in terms of (the chance of) becoming the first female president.”
“I’m certainly going to vote for Mrs. Clinton in the primary and certainly in the general election, but it’s kind of a different kind of history.”
The S.C. Democratic primary
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a commanding lead in the state’s Feb. 27 Democratic presidential primary:
Clinton – 71 percent
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders – 21.3 percent
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – 2.7 percent
In national polls
Clinton – 55.8 percent
Sanders – 30.2 percent
O’Malley – 4.4 percent