South Carolina

In SC stop, 2020 Democrat Beto O’Rourke confronts challenge of courting black voters

Beto O’Rourke came to South Carolina pitching his support for the African-American community, but one exchange highlighted the challenge he faces in the Palmetto State’s 2020 Democratic primary.

At a campaign stop at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, a black voter asked a pointed question for the Texas Democrat seeking the party’s presidential nomination.

“If you’re not for reparations, why should I vote for you?” he asked.

O’Rourke managed a reply that sidestepped the hot-button issue of reparations for slavery. He instead highlighted his support for fixing racial inequities in public education and eliminating “racist voter ID laws.”

The exchange illustrated the skepticism O’Rourke could encounter as he appeals to South Carolina’s mostly black Democratic primary electorate, especially as he competes in a field that is tilting more progressive on racial and other issues.

“I’m just beginning to understand the challenges people face, and the need for reparations and repair,” O’Rourke said.

The Texas Democrat rose to national prominence during an unsuccessful run to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year, capturing the attention of media and haters alike.

A moderate with crossover appeal for Trump-weary Republicans, O’Rourke raised more than $6 million in the 24 hours after he announced his campaign for president last week, topping Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ first-day fundraising record.

Now O’Rourke hopes his outsider status and appeal to young people and suburban moderates alike can propel him to victory in the Palmetto State’s first-in-the-South primary.

O’Rourke’s schedule shows he understands the importance of reaching black voters here. He followed his appearance in front of 500 people at USC with a stop in front of a smaller crowd at S.C. State University, the state’s largest historically black university.

Earlier on Friday, O’Rourke kicked off his first S.C. trip with a visit to the site of the 1961 Friendship Nine sit-in in Rock Hill, where he met surviving member Willie McLeod.

“I’m beginning to learn your story, but there’s so much more I want to understand,” O’Rourke told McLeod, sitting at the same lunch counter Friday where McLeod was arrested almost 60 years ago while protesting segregation.

Others who saw O’Rourke said they appreciated his frankness when discussing racial issues and his need to reach out to African-American voters.

“He’s transparent... He knows he doesn’t understand black people’s challenges,” said Eric Favor, a senior at Claflin University in Orangeburg. “If he can get to know us and understand individual people’s challenges, he can continue to grow his support with African-Americans.”

Nikayla Lane, a sophomore at USC, said she was “intrigued” by O’Rourke’s appearance at the Russell House student union, but she wanted to hear more details about his solutions to the problems he outlined.

“He’s talking about the right things,” Lane said. “He needs to work on what he’s going to do. How do you get to universal health care? How is he going to address the justice system?”

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 in the Democratic presidential field. He’s made a point to identify himself as a capitalist since his announcement and has preached a unifying message that shies away from explicitly progressive positions.

In addition to his reparations answer Friday, O’Rourke said he supported a more moderate expansion of Medicare to cover needy individuals rather than the “Medicare-for-All” plan backed by some other candidates.

But on others issues, he leaned further to the left, saying the U.S. should “end the war on drugs, the war on people” by expunging the records of people with marijuana convictions, and stressing the need to move away from fossil fuels to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

“In 30, 40, 50 years, will we be looked back on with pride or disgust?” he asked. “We have to move off of fossil fuels to renewable energy.”

In 2018, the 46-year-old O’Rourke’s was able to combine that message with a unique personal style that created viral media moments, resonated with voters and opened Democrats’ wallets.

But it remains to be seen whether O’Rourke can charm Democrats in South Carolina, where he faces stiff competition for black votes in a diverse 2020 field.

Be like Joe?

Some observers say one recent, prominent race shows it can be done. Newly-elected U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, won a previously red seat in South Carolina 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.”

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

Not yet officially part of O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, Jones said Cunningham and O’Rourke share the same down-to-earth appeal.

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

Knotts also said another 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 affluent 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.”

Reporter Hannah Smoot with the Rock Hill Herald contributed.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.