As 2020 Race Starts In SC, Can Beto O’Rourke Hit The Same Sweet Spot He Did In 2018?

By By Bristow Marchant, The State (Columbia, S.C.)

He almost ousted from office Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a top target of Democrats’ ire. He raised $6 million in his first 24 hours of running for president. And he’s capturing the attention of media and haters alike — from opposition articles criticizing his youthful indiscretions to a high-gloss spread in Vanity Fair timed with his announcing his campaign.

Beto O’Rourke will touch down in South Carolina on Friday for his first presidential campaign swing through the Palmetto State.

The Texas Democrat — who rose to national prominence with an unsuccessful bid to unseat Cruz last year — hopes his outsider status and appeal to young people and suburban moderates alike can propel him to victory in the state’s first-in-the-South primary.

But will that strategy be enough to win in South Carolina, where a diverse field of Democratic contenders already are courting a largely African-American primary electorate?

Some say one recent, prominent race suggests it can be done. Newly-elected U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, won election in a previously red seat with a similar strategy.

“Cunningham went to brew pubs, he’s a young guy, he’s active on social media,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts. “Beto is also young and active on social media.”

Knotts also said one factor could play to O’Rourke’s favor.

“One thing that’s unique in South Carolina is that, without a Republican primary, you could see voters turn out in Mount Pleasant, Lexington, suburban Greenville, who don’t normally vote in Democratic primaries,” Knotts said.

But Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel, sees limited potential if O’Rourke’s appeal is limited to more upscale white voters.

“That might play better in the Charleston area than it will in Orangeburg or Allendale,” Buchanan said. “Could Joe have won in the 3rd or 4th District? Not likely.”

Not that big on labels

As a three-term congressman from West Texas and then a statewide Senate candidate, O’Rourke has struck a much more moderate tone than other candidates now making up the Democratic presidential field. He’s made a point to identify himself as a capitalist since his announcement and has struck a unifying message that has shied away from taking explicitly progressive positions.

For example, when he initially ran for Congress, O’Rourke supported changes to Social Security to make benefits less generous for future retirees, Politico reported. He told the site recently he’s “not big on labels” when it comes to his politics.

But in 2018, the 46-year-old O’Rourke was able to craft a personal style and some viral media moments that resonated with voters and opened Democrats’ wallets. In the first 24 hours of his presidential campaign, O’Rourke managed to raise more than $6 million.

O’Rourke will make a bid for younger voters when he speaks at the University of South Carolina’sRussell House student union on Friday, as well as at S.C. State University, the state’s largest historically black university. O’Rourke is also meeting Saturday with students and young people who will march for changes to gun laws in Charleston.

He will also make a brew pub stop of his own. O’Rourke’s campaign schedule Friday ends with a meet-and-greet at Tradesman Brewing Company in Charleston. Cunningham also made a point of visiting breweries around the Charleston area ahead of last year’s election.

Tyler Jones also sees similarities between the two men. The Charleston-based consultant was the chief strategist for Cunningham’s win last year, and then became the state director of the “Draft Beto” movement before O’Rourke announced he would enter the race.

Not yet officially part of O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, Jones draws a comparison between Cunningham’s down-to-earth appeal and what he sees animating the excitement around O’Rourke’s nascent campaign.

“Both Beto and Joe have a political attribute most politicians would kill for,” Jones said. “Authenticity.”

Cunningham won in 2018 in South Carolina’s1st District, a coastal constituency full of growing suburbs, similar to other areas that flipped to Democratic from Republican in last year’s midterms.

His opponent, former Dorchester state Rep. Katie Arrington, ran a very Trump-like campaign at a time when pundits and pollsters saw upscale suburban moderates as being disenchanted with President Donald Trump’s style, even if they would usually vote Republican.

Those voters across the state could find O’Rourke, more moderate than some of his challengers, appealing, Charleston’s Knotts said.

But the demographics statewide in 2020 will be much different than the 1st District, with primary voters who will be less suburban and more non-white. African-Americans made up 61 percent of the South Carolina primary electorate in 2016.

Centrist Dems face challenges

Columbia-based pollster Carey Crantford said candidates will face challenges in running a more moderate campaign statewide, especially in a year when many candidates are running on more explicitly progressive platforms. He compares it to S.C. Democrats’ unsuccessful 2018 candidate for governor.

“James Smith tried a similar approach as a middle-of-the-road consensus politician, and it was not successful on a broader playing field,” Crantford said.

Scott Huffmon at Winthrop University says the key for a strong performance for any white candidate in South Carolina will be “to see how many African-American women are at their rally.”

Apparently cognizant of that fact, O’Rourke’s first official stop in South Carolina will be at the site of the 1961 Friendship Nine lunch counter sit-in in Rock Hill. After meeting students at S.C. State, O’Rourke will hold a Charleston town hall with state Sen. Marlon Kimpson on Saturday.

“There’s room (for O’Rourke),” even in a field that will include at least two African-American candidates in Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Furman University professor Teresa Cosby, adding African-American voters will be pragmatic in making their choices.

“African-Americans are like any other Democrat; they want someone who can win,” Cosby said. “Obama showed them with his win in Iowa that he could win with white voters. If they feel (Booker and Harris) can’t, they will look at others.”

She says the key is to appeal to the policy prescriptions that black voters care about — housing, health care, criminal justice reform, pocketbook issues, and “the safety of African-American communities and African-American children.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.