WINNSBORO, S.C. – With the Democratic presidential field focused on New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, billionaire Tom Steyer has South Carolina all to himself.
The climate activist has wagered much of his 2020 campaign on Nevada and South Carolina, the first two states with significant nonwhite populations to hold presidential preference votes in 2020. Former Vice President Joe Biden has deep support in South Carolina, but Steyer has been working to make inroads, particularly among the black voters who make up most of the state’s Democratic electorate. Over the course of his campaign, he’s held more events here than any other candidate still in the field.
On Sunday night, dozens of people showed up in downtown Winnsboro, a central South Carolina city of about 3,000, to see Steyer, eat free barbecue and listen to music. Two hip-hop acts warmed up the crowd. Afterward, several women sang a gospel song as Steyer took photos with supporters. A town hall was planned for Monday night after meet-and-greets during the day.
"I'm here because it's an important state and one where it's really important for us to do well, for me to do well," Steyer told reporters Sunday. "If you want to be a Democratic candidate for president, you've got to appeal to everybody across the country, and you've got to appeal to the diverse Democratic Party coalition."
Surrogates from other campaigns have visited the state recently as their candidates stump in New Hampshire. Last weekend, several women from the activist collective Black Womxn For campaigned in the state for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Dr. Victoria Dooley, a health care activist, stumped for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, co-chairman of Biden's campaign, planned to hold a South Carolina "launch" party in Columbia on Tuesday night.
“Steyer has spent more time on the ground in South Carolina than any other candidate,” said Henri Thompson, a South Carolina consultant who worked on Steyer's campaign for two months last year. “More than spending money, Steyer has spent quality time getting to know South Carolina, especially African American voters here.”
The money has gotten attention. For months, Steyer has flooded South Carolina airwaves with millions of dollars in ads, introductions that have made him recognizable to audiences who had likely never heard of him. With 2 1/2 weeks to go until the Feb. 29 primary, that will only increase: Steyer's campaign has more than $672,000 in airtime booked in the state.
Steyer is also activating a ground organization his campaign says it has been building out for months. With a staff of more than 100, Steyer’s campaign planned to hold 100 events leading up to the South Carolina primary, an effort a chief organizer said will keep Steyer visible, even as he campaigns elsewhere.
"This is the place where the polls have shown that he is gaining traction," said Mary Geren, who joined the campaign after working as the regional director of Cory Booker's unsuccessful 2020 effort. “All the work that he's been doing since he entered the campaign, in South Carolina, it's just finally starting to pay off.”
After Monday night’s event, Steyer planned to head to Nevada for a bus tour ahead of the caucuses. He’s yet to qualify for the Feb. 19 debate there, and on Monday, he called on Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez to expand the qualification polling window.
After Sunday night’s block party, Allen Pearson jumped at the chance to shake Steyer’s hand as he walked down the street in Winnsboro.
“He’s got my vote,” said Pearson, who was initially backing Biden but shifted to Steyer after what he saw as a strong debate performance on Friday. “I like Joe Biden. But I’m leaning on Steyer now. But I don’t know — I’ve got a long time to figure it out.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
This story has been corrected to show that Winnsboro has a population of about 3,000, not 23,000.
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