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Joe Biden’s South Carolina allies lay groundwork for 2020 campaign

The battle for 2020: Possible Democratic presidential nominees

The pressure is ramping up for Democratic presidential hopefuls who hope to take on President Donald Trump next year. Here's a brief look at who is battling for the nomination in the 2020 election.
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The pressure is ramping up for Democratic presidential hopefuls who hope to take on President Donald Trump next year. Here's a brief look at who is battling for the nomination in the 2020 election.

Joe Biden’s South Carolina supporters aren’t waiting for him to make up his mind.

A cadre of allies that one Democratic consultant in the state described as Biden’s “South Carolina brain trust” is working to build a campaign-in-waiting for the former vice president, who continues to edge toward a 2020 White House bid but hasn’t yet committed.

In this crucial early primary state, Biden’s associates are moving to lock down local support, asking state lawmakers, community leaders and other influential figures to be patient even as other campaigns begin organizing.

“Certainly a lot of key staff and supporters with whom I’ve spoken ... many of whom get calls from every other campaign saying, ‘hey, come work for us,’ I’ve urged exactly that: for everybody to just hold up. This isn’t done yet,” said former state Rep. James Smith, who was South Carolina’s 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. He said he spoke with Biden last week and encouraged him to run.

Central players in this pro-Biden effort include state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, a former state party chairman, and Trip King, a veteran of South Carolina politics who served as Biden’s state director during his short-lived 2008 presidential campaign.

“I’ve talked to a number of my fellow senators, legislators, different people around the state active in Democratic politics, trying to galvanize them into supporting the vice president,” Harpootlian said. “It’s going very well.”

Smith, who has long been close with Biden, added, “Certainly a lot of folks who were part of our [gubernatorial] primary and our effort in the general election, they are all waiting to hear. When he gives the word, they’re ready to go.”

Biden’s roots run deep in South Carolina. In the last presidential election, there was a significant if unsuccessful “Draft Biden” effort in the state. And there is tremendous goodwill toward the man who served as Barack Obama’s vice president.

“If he gets in, I would be with him, yes,” said state Rep. David Mack, who represents the Charleston area. He predicted Biden would have wide support among other Democratic elected officials.

But goodwill and even endorsements do not guarantee votes — or campaign staff.

In this overwhelmingly Republican state, the pool of available Democratic operatives is finite — and rapidly draining. Several of the state’s most experienced strategists have already joined campaigns, favoring Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Michael Wukela, a well-known South Carolina Democrat who has worked for Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and on a number of campaigns, said some sought-after operatives have yet to commit given the prospect of Biden entering the race.

But Wukela, who is himself currently fielding offers from campaigns, said it was “dangerous” for Biden to wait much longer before making an announcement, despite his popularity in the state. Many expect a decision as soon as next month, though Biden has blown past such expected deadlines before.

“I would say the longer people wait to hire staff, the tougher it’s going to be to fill the positions they need to fill, and get the level of experience they need to win South Carolina,” Wukela said.

Mariah Hill, who was the campaign manager for Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C. — overseeing one of the Democrats’ biggest upset victories of the 2018 cycle — has been on the radar of Biden allies. (Another Cunningham campaign architect, Tyler Jones, is expected to play a senior role advising Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke in the state.)

Senior Democrats in the state also expect that Fran Person, a former longtime Biden aide who in 2016 tried to unseat then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., would be affiliated with efforts to back his onetime boss.

“He’s been like another father in my life,” Person said. “Family always sticks together — that is the rule in the Biden family. I can only say that if Vice President Biden were to run for president, I would do everything in my power to support him.”

One of the biggest players in South Carolina Democratic politics currently uncommitted to a 2020 candidate is Kendall Corley, who has specialized in grassroots campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts throughout the South.

Sources said Corley, who was connected with Draft Biden efforts in 2015, has been speaking with associates of Biden, Booker, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Corley said he has compiled a list of names of lesser-known operatives he has worked with over the years who could bring different skills to a presidential campaign. Some of them, Corley said, are waiting to see where he lands before making their own decisions.

“I’ve never operated as Kendall Corley, I’ve only operated as a team,” Corley said. “It’s all about the team that you pull together.”

Antjuan Seawright is another prominent unaligned South Carolina Democratic strategist who has worked with Corley before. He is an experienced operative who has heard from Biden allies as well as from other campaigns. He would need to decide how to balance any potential campaign job with his consulting work and national television analyst obligations.

Sam Johnson, who has worked for Benjamin and former state Rep. Anton Gunn of Richland County, has been contacted by associates of Biden, Booker, Harris and O’Rourke. Johnson said he did not plan to leave his job at the law firm Nexsen Pruet, but would eventually align himself with a presidential campaign in an advisory role.

“He needs to make sure he doesn’t appear to be trying to skip a step or rely on the fact that he’s the vice president, so he doesn’t have to do this or do that,” Johnson said of Biden. “And that is going to be reflected in his team.”

Given that the state’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary electorate was more than 60 percent African-American, the demand is high for seasoned black strategists from South Carolina who have strong connections to this constituency.

“I think it’s important to have diversity in your leadership. That includes African-Americans and women,” said Corley, who is black, as are Seawright and Johnson.

With Biden still on the sidelines, Booker, Harris and Warren have each tapped a black woman to serve as their respective South Carolina state director, each boasting deep local ties and impressive resumes in South Carolina politics. The campaigns are sending a message to competitors with these hires that they have been able to attract some of the state’s most coveted talent.

But Harpootlian dismissed the idea that Biden is running out of time to build his own formidable operation. A spokesman for Biden declined to comment.

“The folks I talked to, they’ll wait for the vice president to announce. We all suspect that will be within the next four weeks,” Harpootlian said. “They understand he’s our best chance, maybe our only chance to beat [President Donald] Trump in 2020. Most of them are going to keep their powder dry until an announcement is made, but the fact of the matter is, they’re not committing to other candidates.”

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Katie Glueck is a senior national political correspondent at McClatchy D.C., where she covered the 2018 midterm contests and is now reporting on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Previously, she was a reporter at POLITICO, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections as well as the 2014 midterms. Her work has also appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, Washingtonian magazine, Town & Country magazine and The Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a native of Kansas City.

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on the South Carolina congressional delegation for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.

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