If South Carolina Is Joe Biden's Firewall, Tom Steyer Wants To Breach It | KUNC

If South Carolina Is Joe Biden's Firewall, Tom Steyer Wants To Breach It

Feb 28, 2020
Originally published on February 28, 2020 11:16 am

As Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary debate came to a close, each of the candidates was asked to name the biggest misconception voters have about them.

A day later, the question was still on the mind of Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund investor who has barnstormed South Carolina, aggressively courting the black vote with a focus on racial justice and climate issues.

"I know that people describe me as being a rich person," Steyer told the group gathered in the fellowship hall of Georgetown, S.C.'s Bethel AME. "We're in church. I'm not defined by money. That is not how I think about myself. I'm from a family that has never thought that way about life."

Whether Steyer sees himself that way or not, his spending has prompted a stir in South Carolina as he seeks a foothold here. He has poured money into the black community, in the form of supporting black businesses, vendors and the ads that have inundated this state.

That focus was on display in Georgetown. As people trickled in out of the rain, some picked up shirts that Steyer's campaign is giving out. One said "Reparations are Past Due," another "Invest in HBCUs." A volunteer handed out church fans with photos of Steyer surrounded by black South Carolinians.

At one point, there was a throwback to the refrain of the Obama years, but instead of "fired up" and "ready to go," people chanted "Steyered up," and "Trump's gotta go."

Jack Scoville, a retired lawyer and the former mayor of Georgetown, was in the front row. He was leaning toward supporting Biden, who was campaigning in Georgetown, about a mile away.

"Well frankly, I hadn't been very impressed with Mr. Steyer. I don't like the fact that these guys come in because they've got a lot of money and think they can run the country," Scoville said.

Supporters sit in the overflow room as Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Steyer speaks during a town hall meeting in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Wednesday.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

Scoville prefers someone with a more traditional background, but he said he was willing to be convinced. Sitting next to him was Mack Nesmith of Georgetown, who is also retired and also undecided.

"I'm in a dilemma right now between Steyer, Vice President Biden and Elizabeth Warren, it's between those three," Nesmith said.

Nesmith said he wanted to learn about Steyer's positions on Medicare, Social Security and what his plans are for America's senior citizens.

One thing that everyone here mentioned was the ads that Steyer has been running in the state. They're impossible to miss. Since July when Steyer jumped into the race — after initially demurring — he has spent more than $17 million on local television ads.

And then there are the mailers.

Nesmith said he got more from Steyer than anyone else. Sitting on the other side of the room, Marvin Neal, who is the head of Georgetown's NAACP, said he got three or four each week.

They're so ubiquitous that a voter at Steyer's CNN town hall this week asked Steyer, the founder of NextGen America and a longtime climate change champion, how the strategy was environmentally responsible.

Steyer has staked his campaign on South Carolina, and there are signs that his strategy — which leans heavily on courting the black vote — has helped his candidacy. A Monmouth University poll on Thursday showed that he has support of 15% of Democratic primary voters, in third place behind Biden with 36% and Bernie Sanders with 16%. No other candidate is in the double digits, or nearing the 15% threshold to earn statewide delegates.

Steyer did not net a single delegate in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, so while South Carolina is regarded as a firewall for Biden, it could be a last stand for Steyer too.

Like Biden, his campaign's theory of the case is that victory in South Carolina would act as a launchpad ahead of Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 other states vote. But polls in many of those states, where they do exist, show little good news for Steyer.

But here in South Carolina, it's not hard to find voters who have met him three or four times. At a breakfast town hall focused on rural health care in Orangeburg, Rosella and Michael Cooper said that Steyer had been to Denmark, where they live, over and over again.

Residents have raised questions about the water system there, and Steyer often talks about his trips when he's campaigning, here or elsewhere.

"Come to Denmark, which is such a small, small town, and it's a poor town, and then they have our interest," said Michael Cooper. "But when you come back as many times as he has, now you have our support."

As people wound through the line for a breakfast buffet provided by Steyer's campaign, Rosella Cooper told me she'd been volunteering for Steyer all week.

While some have criticized Steyer, and fellow billionaire Michael Bloomberg, for self-funding their own campaigns, it didn't bother the Coopers. They saw the fact that Steyer was not seeking donations as a good thing.

Tatanshia Palmer also attended the Orangeburg breakfast.

"I was originally planning on supporting Joe Biden because he was familiar," said Palmer. "I figured if Barack Obama could trust him, I could trust him as well."

But she saw Steyer's ads, and learned more about him, and ultimately decided to give him her support.

I think Steyer is a billionaire with a heart and a message that is resonating with people. - Gilda Cobb-Hunter

Steyer's also picked up the support of some influential South Carolina lawmakers, including Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member of the South Carolina House, and an influential African American leader in the state. She is a paid national adviser to Steyer's campaign, a move that drew some scrutiny when first reported by The Associated Press.

Cobb-Hunter pushed back against some of the skepticism around Steyer's spending and concern that he is buying the state's black vote.

"It's not just about money. It's about message. You can have all the money in the world, but if you ain't saying nothing, then what does it really matter," she said at an interview at her Columbia office. "I think Steyer is a billionaire with a heart and a message that is resonating with people."

She also suggested that Biden's grip on the state's black vote was not as strong as polls make it seem.

Steyer speaks at a town hall campaign event on Wednesday in Georgetown, S.C.
Meg Kinnard / AP

"Joe Biden's support was a mile wide and an inch deep, and that's not to be offensive, it's just being real," she said.

She said Biden's success should be judged not by whether he wins her state, but by what margin.

Though Biden leads in the polls here, Steyer rarely mentions him on the trail. Instead, he describes a race for first place between Sanders and Bloomberg, neither of which he says are really Democrats.

"Actually nominating one of the people from the extremes of the party risks the party turnout," Steyer said this week. "And that's what I've been trying to say about Bernie and Mike Bloomberg."

He says he's a progressive Democrat, the kind with the solutions that voters are looking for. They just have to give him a chance.

"That's why South Carolina matters so much. I have to show in real time with real people that they are voting for me and I can be the person to pull the party together," he said. "That's what has to happen, and that's what I'm asking you to help me do."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, we have an update on the other billionaire in the presidential race. Michael Bloomberg has captured much of the attention. He's the one who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads and is on the ballot for the first time on Super Tuesday next week. Tom Steyer is also a wealthy activist who has been campaigning much longer and is competing for the very large black vote tomorrow in South Carolina. Here's what NPR's Juana Summers saw when she watched Tom Steyer campaign.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: People are filing into the fellowship hall of an AME church in Georgetown, S.C., Carolina to hear from Tom Steyer - or as most of them call him, Tom. No last name, either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome. Thanks for coming.

SUMMERS: They pick up shirts that say things like, reparations are past due and, invest in HBCUs. That's historically black colleges and universities. Someone's handing out church fans, the kind with a wooden handle with photos of Steyer surrounded by black South Carolinians. And there's a throwback to a refrain from the Obama years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: When I say Steyered up, you say...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trump's got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Steyered up.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trump's got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Steyered up.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Trump's got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The next president of the United States, Tom Steyer.

SUMMERS: Steyer comes in to a standing ovation. He shakes a couple hands. Then he gets right to the point.

TOM STEYER: People think I'm defined by money. We're in church. I'm not defined by money. You know, that is not how I think about myself. I'm from a family that has never thought that way about life.

SUMMERS: But the hedge fund billionaire's spending is part of why he's become a major factor here in South Carolina, where black voters are two-thirds of the primary electorate. While other candidates were focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, Steyer was here. And he made sure everyone knew it.

MACK NEISMITH: He was the one that sent out more brochures than anybody else.

NANCY DOUGHERTY: We started doing mailers in the mail. And I started reading his. And...

MARVIN NEAL: Ton of mail. I get three or four mails every week.

TATANSHIA PALMER: I get something in the mail every day (laughter).

SUMMERS: The voices you just heard were Mack Neismith and Marvin Neal of Georgetown, Nancy Dougherty of Murrells Inlet and Tatanshia Palmer of Orangeburg. They've all been inundated. Then there are the ads. Since July, when Steyer jumped into the race, he's spent more than $17 million on local broadcast ads. It's hard to turn on the TV without seeing one. Earlier this month, he announced that he'd hired Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the longest-serving member of South Carolina's state House, as a national adviser. She rarely endorses in presidential campaigns. Cobb-Hunter says it's about more than the money.

GILDA COBB-HUNTER: It's not just about money. It's about message. You can have all the money in the world. But if you ain't saying nothing, then what does it really matter? And so I think Steyer is a billionaire with a heart and a message that is resonating with people.

SUMMERS: That may be true in South Carolina. Monmouth University released a poll yesterday. Biden still has a wide lead. But Bernie Sanders and Steyer are in a virtual tie. They are the only three candidates in the double digits. A lot of the voters I met are still sizing Steyer up.

JACK SCOVILLE: Well, frankly, I haven't been very impressed with Mr. Steyer. I don't like the fact, you know, these guys come in because they've got a lot of money, and they think they can, you know, run the country.

SUMMERS: That's Jack Scoville. He's a retired lawyer who used to be mayor of Georgetown. He's leaning toward Biden. Sitting next to him is Mack Neismith. He's also retired, also undecided between Steyer, Biden and Elizabeth Warren.

NEISMITH: I'm in a dilemma right now between those three. I hadn't made up my mind yet. That's why I came out today to see what he had to say about different issues and about senior citizens and Social Security and Medicare.

SUMMERS: At a Steyer event the next day in Orangeburg, people are talking as they fill their plates high with slabs of bacon scrambled eggs and fruit from a buffet. The event was focused on rural health care. Most of the people here are black. Tatanshia Palmer was there. She's supporting Steyer now.

PALMER: I was originally planning on supporting Joe Biden because he was familiar. I figured if Barack Obama trusted him, then I could trust him, as well.

SUMMERS: All those Steyer ads were a nuisance for some people. But they were part of what won Palmer over. Rosella and Michael Cooper came from Denmark, S.C.

MICHAEL COOPER: Come to Denmark, which is such a small, small town - and it's a poor town - then they have our interest. But when you come back as many times as he has, now you not only have our interest. You got our support.

SUMMERS: Steyer's closing pitch frames the primary as currently a race for first between a former Republican, Mike Bloomberg, and a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders.

STEYER: Actually nominating one of the people from the extremes of the party risks the party turnout. And that's what I've been trying to say about Bernie and about Mike Bloomberg.

SUMMERS: One candidate he doesn't mention is Joe Biden. Like Biden, Steyer's campaign thinks if he does well in South Carolina, it could propel him into the Super Tuesday states, where he's been investing heavily. But unlike Biden, Steyer has barely any support in the states beyond South Carolina. Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.