Every four years, South Carolina sees a steady march of Democratic presidential contenders come through the state, including this Friday’s forum at Winthrop University, when the top three contenders for the party’s nomination – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – each will appear in a forum broadcast nationwide on MSNBC.
The state is guaranteed this quadrennial attention because of its position as the first-in-the-South primary. But once the primary is past, state Democrats can expect to see a sharp drop-off in the attention of the party’s national leaders, and a dearth of campaign activity ahead of the general election. After President Barack Obama won the 2008 primary en route to the White House, he didn’t step foot back in the state until a visit earlier this year.
That’s because South Carolina has historically been an uncompetitive environment for Democrats. The party has no statewide elected officeholders, and a majority-Republican congressional delegation and state Legislature. Despite all the primary activity, no Democratic presidential nominee has carried the state since 1976.
A similar story has played out in other Southern states over the past 40 years. Friday’s forum, co-hosted by the S.C. Democratic Party and 12 other state parties from this side of the Mason-Dixon line, will double as a chance for Democrats to re-introduce themselves to Southern voters and strategize for the future.
At 1 p.m. Friday, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter will host a town hall in Winthrop’s DiGiorgio Campus Center on the “New South” with other members of the DNC’s “Southern caucus,” a group currently led by S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison. Harrison also plans to film a series of interviews with other Southern leaders on policy wins such as the expansion of Medicaid in Arkansas and Kentucky.
Reviving the party’s fortunes in the region “is an important question for the nation,” Harrison said. “Fewer Democrats getting elected from the South is why the Republicans control the House of Representatives.”
The change was a long time coming, as the party that dominated the region for a century after the Civil War slowly lost its grip among shifting political alignments within the two national parties. But even then, Southern Democrats were slow to respond to changing times.
“From the time of the Solid South to (former Congressman) John Spratt, the party didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Fifth Congressional District,” said Rick Whisonant, a political science professor at York Technical College. “When the sea change started happening, it was clear Spratt was either going to retire or be defeated. What was the plan then?”
Spratt, of York, represented the 5th District from 1983 to 2011.
Most leaders agree rebuilding the party will be a similarly long-term objective. To start, Harrison says the party is fostering issue-oriented caucuses within the party – groups focused on veterans’ issues or the LGBT community – that will allow people focused on those issues an entry point into Democratic Party politics.
After Spratt’s defeat in 2010, “It has taken us a few years to find the way forward, but I’m really proud of where we are now,” said Amy Hayes, chair of the York County Democrats, who says the local party is much more organized in recent years. “I’ve seen bankers go knocking on doors with union members and black ministers pray with LGBTQ activists.”
For now, Harrison wants to see the party develop new leaders at the city and county level – where he says Democrats have already shown they can be competitive in South Carolina – who can then move up to legislative and state races. Part of Friday’s festivities for the party will be the announcement of the Clyburn political fellowships, an initiative to train young party operatives in each South Carolina county.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia represents the 6th Congressional District.
“Thirty years ago, the GOP was where we are now,” Harrison said. “And they fought to change things.”
In the short term, Harrison wants to challenge the “caricature” that Democrats are pro-tax and anti-business. He cites the recent passage of a U.S. House bill to re-authorize the Export-Import Bank, a body that helps U.S. businesses compete overseas, which passed with mostly Democratic support.
“Conservatives like (U.S. Rep.) Mick Mulvaney (of Indian Land) led the charge against it,” he said. “If you just take the caricature, you would think (Democratic) Rep. Jim Clyburn would be against it and Mick Mulvaney would be for it.”
In the long term, Democrats believe demographics are on their side. Forty percent of young people have a more favorable opinion of the Democrats than the Republicans, Harrison said. But he adds the party can’t just wait for future generations to reach their peak voting power.
“We have to hasten the transition in South Carolina,” he said. “We need to point out that our infrastructure’s crumbling and our schools are not performing well, and look who’s in charge. It’s not the Democrats.”
While a diversifying electorate may benefit Democrats, Whisonant says the party needs a “millennial policy” targeting the issues affecting young people, like the burden of student loan debt.
“For millennials, the party labels don’t really matter. They’re looking for real policy solutions,” Whisonant said. “The perfect storm is just around the corner, and if Democrats can’t take advantage of it, another party will come along and do it.”
An influx of out-of-state residents into South Carolina also could help the party. Locally, Hayes says more urban areas tend to be Democratic and rural areas are up for grabs – “If you see a guy in overalls in the farmyard, he’s either a really strong Republican or a really strong Democrat.” – but suburban areas in Fort Mill remain a challenge.
“It’s really interesting that we’re supposedly in a really red area that borders a city (Charlotte) where they wonder if a Republican can win,” she said. “If a lot more move in from outside South Carolina, I wonder if we can move over.”
While a long-term rebuilding strategy could take years or even decades after the 2016 election to bear fruit, party activists still hope the right ground game can combine with the right candidate in the right election.
“The one thing you can predict,” Hayes said, “is that after an election somebody’s going to say, ‘nobody could have ever predicted it.’”
Have a question for the candidates?
Viewers can submit questions for MSNBC host Rachel Maddow to ask during this week’s Democratic presidential forum. The network says Maddow may use some questions from online submissions.
Maddow will interview the Democratic candidates on stage separately in Winthrop’s Byrnes Auditorium. Afterward, she’ll participate in a post-forum political analysis with Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
To submit questions, visit MSNBC’s website or Facebook page. Or, email email@example.com or use the hashtag #MSNBC2016 on Twitter. Questions will be compiled no later than Wednesday so viewers must submit their questions by then.