While there hasn’t been much public polling in the state, Steyer’s been in double-digits in all three surveys released this month. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Steyer is second only to Joe Biden in the state, with Bernie Sanders a close third.
In a state where African Americans are expected to cast more than half of the primary vote, the Biden campaign has long held up South Carolina as his firewall due to the large amount of black voter support he has there. Rival campaigns have struggled to close the gap. But as Steyer continues to not only spend big on TV ads but also on local minority media, he’s been able to steadily gain ground among some African American voters.
“Black voters see Democrats as that party that puts a candidate forth and says they should vote for them,” said Michael Bailey, publisher of The Minority Eye, one of the largest black-owned publications in South Carolina and a paper in which Steyer bought $27,735 in print ads, according to his latest campaign finance report. “Steyer is having a different conversation with black and minority media. It’s not that Joe Biden or any other candidate is bad, they just didn’t think that way.”
Jarrod Loadholt, an Atlanta-based Democratic political strategist, noted the success of Tom Steyer’s state operation, which is comprised almost entirely of native South Carolinians.
“That’s better than advertising,” he said.
Johnnie Cordero, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus and a Steyer endorser, agreed.
“The days have gone where you can come into South Carolina and bring your crew from D.C. and ask black South Carolinians to be your volunteers,” Cordero said.
Steyer’s rising profile and willingness to sprinkle cash across the state has put him on a collision course with rival campaigns — and some state party veterans. On Wednesday, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a former state party chair who is a Biden supporter and high-profile bundler, suggested that Steyer paid off state Rep. Jerry Govan, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, for his support.
Black state legislators immediately called for Biden to disavow the comments, as well as a decades-old Harpootlian remark from a 1986 city council race in which he said, “I do not want to buy the black vote. I just want to rent it for a day.”
“If Biden continues to have [Harpootlian] on his team he has not only failed himself, he has failed South Carolina,” said John King, a state representative and member of the legislative black caucus, adding that he was “disturbed” by the state senator’s comments.
Biden representatives maintain that Harpootlian has no official affiliation with the campaign and that outrage surrounding his comments is the extension of an ongoing political spat that does not involve Biden or Steyer.
A Post and Courier report revealing that Govan, once a Biden ally, received over $43,000 from the Steyer campaign for consulting services further stoked tensions between the Biden campaign and some black South Carolina lawmakers.
Steyer’s supporters have defended Govan, saying payment for consulting services, even as an elected official, is not illegal.
“All I ask is if you’re spending money, you’re spending it in the black community,” Cordero said. “Our people are getting paid. And they love Tom Steyer.”
Steyer has, in fact, been endorsed by a growing number of South Carolina black leaders, including the state’s black women’s caucus, and Greenwood City councilwoman Edith Childs, who coined the “fired up, ready to go” slogan for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. She appears in one of Steyer’s newest TV ads in the state.
Steyer’s South Carolina-centric campaign was in full evidence Friday night when he mentioned the state several times during the Democratic debate and frequently discussed the issue of race. To black voters in the state who are weary of being courted by Democratic candidates who only appear close to primary day, Steyer’s spending and attention is viewed as a sign of a candidate willing to fully invest in them.
“A few months back, he wouldn’t have even been on the radar,” Cordero said. “Now people are talking about him. And it’s not, ‘this white guy spending all this money.’ It’s what he thinks and who he talks to.”
Tiffiany Jones, Steyer’s South Carolina communications director, said the campaign’s plan is to “continue to saturate the state with Tom’s message.” He has over $672,000 in airtime booked next week in South Carolina and plans to organize 100 campaign events in the state starting on Sunday through the Feb. 25 primary.
Even so, Steyer faces skeptics who believe his chances in the Palmetto State remain slim.
“I just don’t know if the support is real,” said Tyler Jones, the strategist. “At the end of the day are black voters going to vote for someone who got 0% in Iowa? Until Joe Biden gives them a reason to leave, they’re not going to leave.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.