COLUMBIA, S.C. ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wasted little time inside the jam-packed gymnasium in South Carolina’s capital Wednesday night laying out the stakes here come presidential primary season next year.
“These are hard times for our country. These are really difficult times,” Warren said early on. “And the direction we go in from here, in no small part, is going to be determined by people in South Carolina.”
The fourth state to hold a Democratic nominating contest ― and the first with a significant black population ― South Carolina has developed into a growing area of focus among 2020 presidential hopefuls, who see it as a key to gaining momentum heading into other Southern primaries.
Warren is the third presidential hopeful in as many days to touch down in South Carolina’s capital ― the first time she has done so since she announced she was forming a committee to explore running for president. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke Tuesday to a packed audience at a local historically black college before heading to an event in North Charleston. The day before, Sanders and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) marched together to the State House, where they each spoke as part of the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. Later this week, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is scheduled to attend a fundraiser for the local chapter of her college sorority at the state fairgrounds. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) both have plans to visit the state soon as well.
“The degree of attention being given to this state for this presidential race? It’s night and day from 2016,” said Justin Bamberg, a state representative who backed Sanders in the last presidential primary.
During the Wednesday night event at Columbia College, Warren received loud applause when she proclaimed that she supports strong unions and overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.
She also declared that health care is a “basic human right,” took a shot at Goldman Sachs for what she described as a $250 million “pre-bribe” to former Trump adviser Gary Cohn, and declared that “it should not be harder to vote in America than it is to buy a gun.”
When a man in the audience told Warren he had grown disenchanted with the Democratic Party because of what he saw as its corporatization and close ties with Wall Street, Warren replied, “Wall Street is not happy about me.”
But she also spent more than two minutes connecting the country’s history of racist redlining policies to the current wealth disparity between white and black families. “Here in America, what the federal government decided to do is subsidize home buying,” Warren, said, “for white people, but not for black people.”
“That gap between white homeownership and black homeownership that was 27 points back when discrimination was legal? Today is 31 points,” Warren continued, causing audible gasps in the audience. “That’s not an America that’s working for everybody.”
Securing victory in South Carolina will require winning over the state’s black population, which holds enormous power in Democratic politics here. According to exit polls, black women alone made up 37 percent of the state’s Democratic primary voters in 2016, and black men comprised an additional 24 percent.
Sanders, who got shellacked by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 South Carolina primary, tweaked his typical stump speech this week to focus more deeply on struggles specific to black Americans. At the historically black Benedict College on Tuesday, he received a standing ovation from an enthusiastic student body.
Nationally, Warren has similarly attempted to better appeal to black voters and try to avoid some of Sanders’ stumbles in 2016. In a New Year’s Eve video announcing her exploratory committee, she stated that “families of color face a path that is [even] steeper and rockier” than do white families. She has forged bonds with the likes of Bernice King, MLK’s youngest daughter, and twice spoke at historically black colleges in 2018 ― first at Dillard University in New Orleans, where she called the country’s criminal justice system “racist.” Then last month at Morgan State University in Baltimore, where she said during a commencement address that the U.S. government had “systematically discriminated against black people in this country.”
About 980 people attended the event Wednesday night, according to a Warren aide. And attendees brought handmade signs that included messages like “Persist,” “We will end corruption” and “Fight.”
But the audience was noticeably whiter than at the week’s previous political events. Considering the unquestionable significance of the black vote in South Carolina, Warren’s decision to pick a predominantly white college (as of 2017) for her first stop in South Carolina this year.
“[It is] certainly something that has been talked about,” said Brady Quirk-Garvan, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party. Another former elected official who did not want to be named agreed there had been chatter.
But Trav Robertson, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said before Warren’s event on Wednesday that he thought such talk was “overly critical.”
“If she runs for president, she’s going to have a lot of opportunities to visit historically black colleges in South Carolina,” Robertson said. “Remember, we’re all just going on first dates with some of these folks.”
Erika Brooks, 46, didn’t exactly know what to expect when she attended Warren’s event. The African-American single mother required transplant surgery in 2017, which left her with medical debt on top of her student loan debt.
“I was in my hospital bed recovering from my surgery, had been in a coma for 21 days, and the Student Loan Corp. was like, pay us,” she said. “And now that I have a second chance in life, I have debt. It took $1.5 million to transplant me.”
Even if she somehow digs herself out of the financial hole, she worries what will come after. “When I get to be 50, 60, what about retirement?” she said.
“I’m seriously disappointed in America,” she continued. “I was losing faith, and I wanted to hear that someone cared, someone understood, someone sees the problems that everyday people are facing.”
Behind the scenes, Warren’s staff and operation have been working aggressively to prove they are taking Brooks’ state seriously, according to Quirk-Garvan. “The senator herself has called me and spent time chatting with me. She made it abundantly clear to me that she’s not writing off this state and she intends to compete pretty vigorously in South Carolina.”
Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said that dedication has been clear at the national level as well. “Their political operation has been among the best in terms of making up call sheets for her and orchestrating all the little touches that mean a lot to the people that are on the receiving end of those calls.”
But Boyd Brown, a former member of the Democratic National Committee and South Carolina House of Representatives who is now working on the “Draft Beto” movement, said Warren has struggled to pull Democrats working within South Carolina’s political structure to her side.
“I’ve talked to numerous people she’s reached out to in South Carolina, and all of them have pretty much given her the same response: Thanks, but no thanks,” Brown said.
The work Warren has ahead of her in South Carolina was clear at Benedict College, where Sanders was speaking Tuesday. Faith Dupree, a 21-year-old psychology major, said she had never even heard of Warren. The vast majority of students who spoke to HuffPost said the same. “But if she would definitely come over to Benedict College, we would definitely have a conversation,” Dupree said.
But for one night, at least, it seemed Warren’s message was getting through. Sean Hoppe, 43, joined his wife to see Warren. Hoppe, a teacher, has voted for both Democratic and Republican candidates in past presidential elections, and he came away impressed with Warren’s values and the way she gave people her full attention.
“I was raised by a very strong woman, and obviously she’s a strong woman, too,” he said. “It’s somebody that I would probably vote for.”
Brooks, the transplant recipient, had not been sure a senator from Massachusetts could relate to the concerns of an “everyday” Southern woman like her. But she came away more than impressed.
“She showed compassion,” Brooks said. “She was sincere.”