The South Carolina primary is actually about the 2028 election

It’s the kind of grasstops glad-handing that seasoned politicians spin as surrogacy for the man atop the ticket but that equally attuned local officials recognize as — to use a colloquial term — laying the groundwork.

“I’m focused on 2024, but if anyone wants to run in 2028, it’d be smart for them to be here now,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Christale Spain. “If they have further aspirations, South Carolina is a place they should spend time.”

Clyburn, whose 2020 endorsement brought Biden’s primary campaign back to life, said, “a lot’s taking place for 2028” in his state already. Clyburn noted that “there are a lot of people I hear for 2028.” He mentioned Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock by name.

Saturday’s primary marks a milestone for South Carolina, as it looks to seize its influential perch as the first-in-the-nation and elevating Black voters earlier in the process than ever before. The Democratic National Committee — which implemented the Biden-backed plan to elevate South Carolina over New Hampshire and remove Iowa altogether in 2024 — plans to review the early window order again in 2025. But South Carolina Democrats hope to cement their position.

“I’m going to fight like hell” to make sure they keep their first-place slot, said Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, who hails from South Carolina and ran for Senate in 2020. “South Carolina, over the years, has demonstrated that it deserves to be where it is.”

Potential 2028 candidates have taken notice. Newsom, Khanna, as well as North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Sen. Cory Booker, have all made appearances here in recent months, most at the request of the Biden campaign to serve as surrogates.

Moore and Warnock planned to be there, but other events intervened. Moore was scheduled to headline a campaign event last Sunday, but once the Baltimore Ravens reached the AFC Championship, he canceled to attend the game, according to a campaign spokesperson. Warnock had also planned to stump for Biden in South Carolina on Friday, but he instead joined the president in Dover, Delaware, for the dignified transfer of the Georgia soldiers killed in Jordan, a Warnock spokesperson confirmed.

The interest in South Carolina from the potential ‘28-ers has extended beyond Biden campaign stops. Both Newsom and Pritzker
donated to former Clyburn staffer Clay Middleton
for his Charleston mayoral bid, which he ultimately lost. Booker’s leadership PAC also cut a check to the state party in September, according to Federal Elections Commission filings.

“In these early primary states, it’s all about establishing relationships early so that you can, if and when you make the decision to run, you have people on-the-ground who can help you, advise you, tell you who to hire,” said one Democrat advising a potential 2028 contender granted anonymity to discuss the candidate’s thinking. “That’s why you see people, the cycle before, engaging locally, giving money, doing things that are helpful to the general cause, but also benefit them.”

“So, yes, that’s what you’re seeing right now,” the person added.

State Democrats thinking about 2028 said Harris and Booker start with a bit of an edge. Those two are building on a preexisting network from running primary operations here in 2019, even though each dropped out before the 2020 primary made it to South Carolina.

“[Harris] has done a lot to avail herself to what’s happening in South Carolina, spending resources here, and really engaging herself here, so I believe it will help her down the road,” said state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, who also noted that he’s had conversations with Khanna. “They want to do the best they can this year to get [Biden] reelected to bode well for them in 2028.”

It also gives these candidates early exposure to the most important constituency in the Democratic Party — Black voters. Notably, in 2020, candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar,
who failed to gain ground with Black voters
, struggled to make their case nationally as the primary contest moved past Iowa and New Hampshire.

These moves in South Carolina come as a longer list of potential Democratic contenders also build out their national organizations and visit other early states. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
raised nearly $2 million
to her federal PAC in the final six months of 2023, a big-money vehicle she launched in June 2023. Pritzker, Newsom and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy also launched federal PACs in the last two years.

Pritzker and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro both campaigned for Biden and Democratic candidates in New Hampshire over the last year. Khanna, a former Bernie Sanders backer, is arguably one of the most active campaigners for the president. He showed up in New Hampshire to back the “Write-In Biden” effort, delivering donuts to supporters in freezing temperatures last month.

When asked if he planned to return to New Hampshire to run for president in four years, Khanna said with a laugh, “I have no idea what I’m going to do after Joe Biden wins.”

Because of its newfound status at the front of the primary calendar, South Carolina lawmakers are now receiving the type of attention that was once solely lavished on elected officials Iowa and New Hampshire.

South Carolina state Rep. Ivory Thigpen said his brother-in-law Ras Smith, who also happened to serve as an Iowa state legislator, got “an entire special” on CNN, which profiled his decision in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“I want a CNN special, too — or give me MSNBC,” Thigpen said with a laugh.

State Sen. Tameika Isaac Devine said no one’s explicitly asked for her support in 2028 yet, “but I’ve had folks who’ve reached out, wanting to stay engaged, and recognizing that anything can happen in four years.” She’s advised them on what events to attend in the state, though she declined to elaborate on those she’s been in touch with.

“There is some talk that if you want to be considered, as we think about 2028, to start showing a presence now,” Isaac Devine added. “I’m getting some ‘Hey, thinking about you’ texts, which shows that continued connection, so those are the folks I’ll think of first in 2028.”

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