Today was Senator Amy Klobuchar’s first scheduled presidential campaign stop in South Carolina, and it was also the Full Grassley’s first time attending a campaign event in 2019. While we’ve already spoken with a couple of the candidates for president for the podcast, we haven’t attended a campaign event yet — so we drove to Greenville to see Minnesota’s senior senator in action.
It was a wet, dreary morning in South Carolina. The drive to the event took longer than it should have, and the cars lined up and down the streets abutted puddles and mud. Weather was the first thing Klobuchar would reference in her speech; after her snow-swept campaign launch, and a harsh Iowa winter, today’s rain was amusing to her. With all of the bad weather candidates have faced so far, you can’t blame her for seeing herself as the harbinger of precipitation.
Neither the weather — nor recent bad stories —kept Klobuchar from getting a healthy crowd. It’s important to note that this was a scheduled Greenville County Democratic Party breakfast, not a campaign event the Klobuchar had to build on its own; it’s also important to note that the GCDP breakfast never gets these numbers. There were a lot of Democrats (the Greenville News counted 300, the Charleston Post-Courier counted 200), staff, and press at the Upstate Circle of Friends, a community center five miles south of downtown Greenville.
In Iowa, South Carolina, or Hawaii for that matter, Democratic party meetings follow a familiar format, and this one was no different: advance staff makes sure signs and yardsigns are placed; party officials and volunteers check in attendees; folks break bread and talk about the most exciting local campaign going on (supporters of State Senate candidate Tina Belge, who is running in a by-election next month, were out in force). There are some speeches, and then the main event. Like many campaign visits, this one came together in only 2–3 days.
After the obligatory speeches, including one by Belge, Klobuchar had arrived.
Klobuchar was introduced by Jarrod Wiggins, who was a great validator. He volunteered for Klobuchar’s first Senate campaign in 2006 while in high school, then moved to South Carolina — so he has cred as both an Amy acolyte and a local. He gave a passionate speech about how he connected with Senator Klobuchar and how she fought for him: first when she fought for Pell Grants, then when she fought against Amendment One, the anti-LGBTQ amendment that Minnesota rejected in 2012. After the speech, Wiggins helped take pictures for the picture line — once a staffer, always a staffer. I can relate.
Klobuchar gave a 27-minute speech to the breakfast — you can listen to it in its entirety here — and covered a lot of ground. One recurring theme was one building bridges, crossing rivers and divides. The I-35W Mississippi River Bridge collapse was a leitmotif for Klobuchar, which makes sense: it’s a day nobody in the Twin Cities forgets, and it was the first major challenge at home she faced after being elected to the Senate. Along with her announcement location, it ties everything back to the Mississippi River, as well.
As a native midwesterner born in one of those counties along the Mississippi, I get it. It probably plays great in the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts in Iowa, and it ties into her platform planks on infrastructure and bipartisanship. I don’t know if it has the same impact in South Carolina, but the speech was still well-received.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to see Klobuchar in South Carolina and not Iowa. Minnesota shares a couple of media markets with Iowa, and the states have a lot in common. Candidates often feel like fish-out-of-water in Iowa, Klobuchar does not. South Carolina is a much better test of her national appeal, with a Democratic electorate that better reflects the entire country.
The folks who came out to hear from the senator were focused on her message. The audience was savvy enough for references to Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Marco Rubio as well, though that may not be the case in a more retail, less activist-y setting. One educator I talked to after the event, Sherita Goldsmith, thought “the speech was great; she addressed some of my concerns as far as college as well as an increase in pay for teachers.”
At the event and at a coffee shop where some local Democrats congregated afterward, I didn’t hear any attendees mention the story that’s dogged her in the past couple of days. During her speech, Klobuchar mentioned that many of the staffers from the 2006 race are with her on this campaign. As she left, a small scrum of reporters got in a question about the controversial family leave policy in her Senate office handbook; Klobuchar answered, “I didn’t write the handbook … the key is it was never enforced.” Yet another reminder that what’s breaking on Twitter isn’t always at the forefront of voters’ minds.
Later, she packed a house in Columbia — not just any house, but the house of former South Carolina Democratic Party chair Carol Fowler, and former DNC chair Don Fowler. Over 150 people came to see Klobuchar. When asked what he thought South Carolina Democrats were looking for, Don Fowler said, crisply, “a win.” He said America needs a “deliverance” from Donald Trump, and said of Klobuchar, “this lady here can certainly do it.”
Mr. Fowler is what’s called a “distinguished party leader,” the superest of the superdelegates. Joe Biden, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama are in this category; like them, Don is a superdelegate for life. Along with Congressman Clyburn’s fish fry, the Fowlers’ home is quickly becoming one of the most important stops in Columbia; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was there earlier this month.
I also talked to Kate Hoffman, a USC honors student who is attending medical school this fall. She told me she “was really happy to hear her ideas to allow the federal government to negotiate prices for Medicaid and Medicare programs” and wanted to hear more about Klobuchar’s plans to lower costs and expand coverage. She’s definitely voting in the primary next year, and she wants to hear candidates talk about climate change and restoring the rule of law and our Democratic norms.
Speaking of voters, the South Carolina primary is 53 weeks away. A recent poll of 600 likely South Carolina Democratic Primary voters put Klobuchar at 1%, but ahead of the other seven candidates sitting at 1%. The healthy applause she got during the speech is probably a more valuable data point than early polling numbers. She was unafraid to call herself an underdog; Jimmy Carter was as well at this point in ‘76.
My impression from talking to voters and the subsequent news coverage was that Klobuchar made a good first impression in the Palmetto State. Much of the coverage focused on the impression that the upstate is more conservative, and potential voters appreciated Klobuchar’s pragmatic streak. After she knocks out Richland County (Columbia) later today, she’ll only have 44 counties left in the South Carolina “full Grassley,” and it’s not hard to see her campaign investing here if she continues to be well-received; while Iowa still seems to be her make-or-break state, South Carolina is her (and everybody else’s) last chance to make an impression before Super Tuesday.
Klobuchar talked a lot about grit during her speech, which may be political aikido in response to her staffing stories, or may have been the plan all along. She didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but she fought hard to get ahead. She’s a Democrat, but she’s not afraid to go where it’s uncomfortable (read: places with Republicans).
Like many others have noted, it’s a compelling general election narrative. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays in a primary that is trending to the left, but has an increasingly crowded left lane.
One thing’s for sure: primary season is in full swing, and voters across South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada will see hundreds more events like today’s before the first Iowans vote on January 29th. It takes a lot of grit to maintain that kind of schedule; Amy Klobuchar is up to the challenge.