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As 2020 presidential candidates campaign in SC, Pee Dee has been mostly left out

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Kamala Harris Hemingway

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris held a meet-and-greet in Hemingway in March. But few candidates have campaigned in the Pee Dee so far this year. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

They have come to Columbia countless times, Charleston regularly and the Upstate with increasing frequency.

But as 2020 presidential candidates campaign for Democratic primary votes in South Carolina, one key region of the state has generally been neglected so far: the Pee Dee.

The state's northeast corner, including the Grand Strand, accounted for about 10 percent of the S.C. Democratic primary vote in 2016. But the area has hosted a fraction of 1 percent of S.C. campaign events so far this year.

The lack of early attention has not gone unnoticed.

"Every time you turn on the TV, they’re in Charleston, they’re in Columbia, they’re in Greenville," said state Rep. Cezar McKnight, D-Lake City. "I’m like, what about Kingstree, what about Lake City, what about other places."

The dynamic may change soon.

Democratic county party chairs in the Pee Dee, who have heard many grumblings from voters there about the sparse candidate visits, have contacted the campaigns to invite them. Aides from several campaigns told The Post and Courier that they are planning stops there for the near future. 

Organizers of the Gallivants Ferry Stump, a biennial event in Horry County to hear from S.C. political candidates in the spring of each election year, are also considering holding one this fall so that presidential candidates could attend before the state's Feb. 29 primary.

"Everybody has been noticing that they've not been going the Pee Dee," said LaShonda Jackson, chairwoman of the Florence County Democrats. "It has been an issue with a lot of people. But now have been correcting their mistake, so I have them really lining up to come here."

The Pee Dee and Grand Strand have received only a handful of candidate visits in the first few months of the 2020 race.

In March, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California held a town hall in Hemingway after speaking to a packed crowd in Myrtle Beach and faith leaders in Conway. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who McKnight endorsed, attended a MLK day celebration in Florence a few weeks before he launched his campaign.

Self-help author Marianne Williamson has swung through the area a few times and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland attended a Myrtle Beach Democrats dinner back in 2017.

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But for the most part, the crowded field of Democratic candidates have focused elsewhere.

"Sincerely, it really bothers me," said state Rep. Pat Henegan, D-Bennettsville, who has endorsed Harris. "I hate for anyone to take us for granted — that our votes will be for them without them coming to at least show that they recognize that we vote."

Democratic officials and lawmakers from the Pee Dee and Grand Strand say they understand why it may not be at the top of the list.

Much of the Pee Dee is rural, making campaign stops harder to get to and less likely to get a big crowd and media attention. Horry County has also become increasingly Republican in recent years and overwhelmingly supportive of President Donald Trump, a factor that some fear may be scaring Democrats away.

"They're going to locations where you can draw the biggest crowds for now," said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville. "But people will remember who paid them attention when it comes time to vote."

But the Pee Dee is also home to significant numbers of African-American voters, widely viewed as the key to winning the Palmetto State's critical "First in the South" primary. Several campaigns have already begun dispatching field organizers to the area.

"If you ignore the Pee Dee, you do so at your own peril," said S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson.

Successful swings through the Pee Dee have historically provided a boost to presidential campaigns.

When Barack Obama was first campaigning for president in 2007, he brought national attention to the decrepit conditions at J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon County. He went on to mention it in his first address to Congress in 2009, and the area eventually got an impressive new school building.

But skipping over the Pee Dee has since become a rising point of tension among Democrats there, who argue it can also lead to depressed turnout for the party in general elections. 

"It's not new," said state Rep. Terry Alexander, D-Florence, who endorsed Sanders and has urged him to return. "The Pee Dee has a history of being ignored, not just by national candidates but by statewide candidates as well... It's sad. If we keep that process going, we won't be winning."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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