COLUMBIA, S.C. ― South Carolina was the site of one of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ most humiliating defeats in his 2016 presidential run. He received just 26 percent of the vote in the Palmetto State’s early primary, presaging a shutout in the South that virtually assured Hillary Clinton the Democratic nomination.
Worse still, his South Carolina defeat epitomized the difficulty he had attracting support from black voters, a core constituency for the Democratic Party.
Ahead of a political rally last Saturday, there were signs that the state remained unwelcoming terrain for Sanders. Two of the state’s veteran Democratic officials carped in the press that he should “get lost,” arguing that the visit was unhelpful in a conservative state where the party’s candidates usually compete by tacking to the center.
But when Sanders walked onto the University of South Carolina stage to the adulation of some 1,000 supporters waving “Medicare for Y’all” placards, it was clear that he had his share of supporters here. Feeding on the crowd’s energy, he dispensed with his detractors with a bit of gentle sarcasm.
“It’s a great turnout. And it’s kind of funny, I was told that there were no progressives in South Carolina,” he deadpanned to an approving crowd.
Welcome to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. In a warm-up for an anticipated second run by Sanders, he’s been promoting the party’s prospects in the Nov. 6 elections during a nine-state campaign swing that began in Bloomington, Indiana, on Oct. 19 and wraps up in Oakland, California, this Saturday. He’ll be joined on that last stop by Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a fellow progressive stalwart running for chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
The South Carolina event, organized by the state chapter of Our Revolution, the group built to carry on the mission of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, was billed as a “Medicare for all” rally. It was Sanders’ first trip back to South Carolina since the primary battle in ’16.
The boisterous health care rally showed the unique position Sanders occupies within the already-crowded field of rumored 2020 presidential contenders: He’s done it before and he has the organizational muscle to show for it, even in a state like South Carolina where he fared poorly in ’16.
During his 40-minute remarks in South Carolina and in three speeches in Iowa later on Saturday and on Sunday in Iowa, Sanders did little to conceal that he is strongly considering another presidential run. He spent a good chunk of his time recounting how the policies he championed as a presidential candidate are now squarely in the Democratic mainstream.
“Three years ago, when I was in South Carolina and other states campaigning, my opponent and editorial writers all across the country ... they said, ‘Bernie Sanders is nuts. He is far out. His ideas are extreme. Nobody supports those wild ideas,’” he said with a mock sense of alarm. “Well, guess what happened folks? Three years have come and gone, and those ideas that were seen to be radical and extreme three years ago are today mainstream, supported by the vast majority of America.”
With Democrats out of power in Washington, there’s been no chance his most ambitious ideas could become law. But there’s also clear evidence his proposals have picked up steam among Democrats.
Sanders’ September 2017 single-payer health care legislation received the support of about one-third of the Senate Democratic Caucus; even former President Barack Obama has praised the underlying policy. And as Sanders is fond of noting on the stump, 70 percent of Americans say they support “Medicare for all,” according to a Reuters poll in August.
An April 2017 bill to make $15 the federal minimum wage, which once had paltry support from his colleagues, now enjoys majority support within the Senate’s Democratic ranks. And most recently, Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) successfully pressured Amazon into adopting a $15 minimum wage.
“We Are Not Going Backwards”
Sanders, who sermonizes about U.S. politics in stark moral terms, remains most comfortable expounding on economic policy. It is a tendency that has elicited criticism from some liberals eager to hear him address systemic racial justice and entrenched sexism in more explicit terms.
The problems for the Brooklyn-born Vermonter didn’t end with the 2016 election. His April 2017 decision to campaign for Democrat Heath Mello, an abortion-rights opponent who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, raised eyebrows on the left.
But Sanders has since taken pains to court black allies, champion policies outside of what are often strictly defined as “economic justice” issues and incorporate them into his stump speech. He can no longer be fairly depicted as a politician narrowly focused on economic or class issues.
When asked in an April interview with HuffPost whether he had grown more sensitive to the need to speak to the particular challenges facing black Americans ― who comprise just a sliver of Vermont’s population ― Sanders admitted that he had.
I imagine going forward, he’s gonna engage in South Carolina in a very different way. Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party
“I traveled to 48 states in this country. I have traveled to many, many African American communities and I have talked to a whole lot of people,” he said. “And I hope my views change in response to what I have learned.”
Sanders’ transformation is evident in his policy agenda. The inclusion of abortion coverage in his single-payer health care bill won plaudits from women’s groups. He commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee; held an anti-poverty rally with civil rights leader Rev. William Barber, in Durham, North Carolina; and convened a live panel discussion on economic inequality that prominently featured people who specialize in the unique barriers facing Americans of color.
And in June, he introduced legislation eliminating the use of cash bail, which a press release from his office noted “disproportionately” affects black, Latinx and Native American people.
Sanders speeches in South Carolina and Iowa reflected this diversified focus. He called the criminal justice system “broken” and “racist,” and mused about “how hypocritical” Republicans are who preach small government, except when it comes to women’s abortion rights.
He concluded his remarks on an optimistic note, citing Americans’ long history of overcoming prejudice and hatred.
“I say to President (Donald) Trump that this country has struggled for too many years, for too many centuries in combating racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia,” Sanders declared. “We are not going backwards. We are going forwards ― as one people.”
Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party and a featured speaker at the South Carolina rally, told HuffPost that since the ’16 primary, Sanders has “built relationships [in South Carolina] and he understands the terrain.
“I imagine going forward, he’s gonna engage in South Carolina in a very different way,” Mitchell said.
At times, Sanders’ current tour revealed some of the limits of his reach. The crowd at the South Carolina rally was somewhat diverse, but it was visibly whiter than the population of Columbia, which is 41 percent black.
And it was telling that neither the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Rep. James Smith, nor any of the party’s House contenders shared the stage with Sanders.
The rally was the product of a longstanding invitation from the state’s Our Revolution chapter, according to his staff, which did not comment on the absence of the various candidates.
Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, criticized party colleagues who blasted Sanders for his visit and said he welcomed the visit.
If Sanders or other national Democratic leaders are “going to bring national attention” to Republican policies in the state that have led to hospital closures and higher utility bills, Robertson said, “Let ’em come.”
“It’s always exciting when national figures localize our issues,” he added.
Over the course of his day-and-a-half in Iowa, Sanders participated in no fewer than four campaign events for J.D. Scholten, who is waging a long-shot bid to unseat infamous white nationalist Rep. Steve King in Iowa’s heavily rural 4th Congressional District.
Scholten, a former minor league baseball pitcher and devout Catholic, is a natural ideological fit for the Brooklyn-born Sanders. Casting himself as heir to the forgotten tradition of farmer populists in Iowa, Scholten is running in support of Medicare for all and taking on the monopoly seed and livestock conglomerates he believes are squeezing small farmers.
In an interview aboard his district-traversing RV “Sioux City Sue,” Scholten dismissed the idea that Sanders’ left-wing policies might be a political liability in his district.
“There’s a lot of things at play right now that are not left or right ― they’re Iowa issues,” he said. “It’s our tariffs, it’s these farmlands all around us.”
But among Iowa’s three GOP-held House seats, Democrats like their odds better in the 1st Congressional District, which includes Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, and the 3rd, which includes the Des Moines metropolitan area. Sanders’ campaign did not reach out to the campaigns of Abby Finkenauer, the Democrat running in the 1st, or Cindy Axne, the nominee in the 3rd. While Finkenauer does not appear with out-of-state Democrats, Axne welcomed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to a campaign rally on Monday.
Sanders campaigned for Scholten after Scholten reached out to him, according to Sanders’ staff, which did not comment on Finkenauer or Axne.
Looking Ahead To 2020
As attention turns to the 2020 Democratic presidential race, the 77-year-old Sanders benefits from his surprisingly strong showing in 2016 against Clinton, who began that race as the prohibitive favorite. But some party strategists believe a big reason for his success was voter antipathy toward her.
His appeal has yet to be tested in a field with several strong candidates ― a field that may well include Harris along with Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and former Vice President Joe Biden.
One thing that Sanders clearly does not see as an obstacle is his age. Though that issue would likely surface, its importance could be diminished if the 75-year-old Biden enters the race. And by Election Day in 2020, Trump will be 74.
After a standing-room-only rally over the weekend at Iowa State, Sanders, Scholten and Iowa Secretary of State candidate Deidre DeJear headed to the school’s sports complex to shoot some hoops for the cameras.
As Sanders was walking out of the facility in shirtsleeves, a student called out to him. “Bernie, are you tired yet?”
“No!” Sanders replied. “I’m just waking up.”