Election 2020 Beto O Rourke Pennsylvania

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks during a event at The Hub Robison Center on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa., Tuesday, March 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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Why Beto O'Rourke is hitting the college circuit early 

When Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke travels to South Carolina on Friday, one of the first places he'll test his message is the University of South Carolina.

It’s a place where students like Jane Marryat, 21, are already weighing who they think could beat President Donald Trump in 2020.

"We talk about Kamala Harris, whether or not Joe Biden is going to jump in and then there’s Beto,” said Marryat, who is the president of the College Democrats at USC.

"He’s like,” she said, her voice trailing off, "he’s like some new blood for the Democratic Party."

O'Rourke is 46 and decidedly Generation X. He came close to beating Republican Ted Cruz in the 2018 U.S. Senate race in Texas, which is how Marryat said she first heard about him.

Soon, she will learn more. O’Rourke will hold a 12:30 p.m. rally at the Russell House student union Friday.

His campaign circuit to college campuses won't end there.

At 3 p.m. Friday, O’Rourke will attend an event at S.C. State University, the state's only public historically black college or university.

Since officially launching his presidential bid last week, O'Rourke has made stops on college campuses a centerpiece of his early campaign strategy.

In New Hampshire he addressed students at Keene State, Plymouth State University and New Hampshire University.

In Pennsylvania, O'Rourke became the first declared Democratic candidate in the 2020 pack to hold a public event in the state when he spoke to hundreds at Penn State University.

The stumps in student unions are an early indication of the importance of young voters in O'Rourke's presidential prospects, and how hard his campaign is angling to get him in front of collegiate crowds.

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Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina lawmaker who has been the national senior adviser to a "Draft Beto" initiative, said presidential candidates who ignore younger voters do so at their own peril.

"Quite frankly, these young people are becoming more and more engaged in the political process," Brown said, citing the youth activism that followed in the wake of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. as an example. "More and more, the millennial voting bloc is having their say."

During the recent 2018 midterm elections, exit polling conducted by NPR found roughly two-thirds of voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Democrats.

It was a noteworthy bump when compared with numbers from the past two midterm elections, when exit polling showed 54 percent of young voters supported Democrats in 2014 and 55 percent pulled the lever for Democrats in 2010.

"This isn't a young versus old campaign. This is about everyone," Brown said. "You have to be able to address everything from first-time home ownership to student loan debt, to starting a business to health care for young families and single individuals alike. If a candidate can’t speak to that intelligently in South Carolina they’re in real trouble."

College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said O'Rourke's early emphasis on students hearkens back to the days of then-candidate Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, which also focused heavily on turning to college campuses.

Other Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 cycle have also made campus visits a part of their schedules during trips to South Carolina, including U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.

"It think it’s smart, but there are reasons to argue that the strategy could have some potential pitfalls as well,” Knotts said.

For college students in particular, the voter registration process can be daunting, especially for students who are attending schools far from their home districts. Knotts said perceived hurdles, like earlier deadlines for absentee ballots and confusion about what’s required to register to vote, often lead to lower turnout numbers for college-aged voters.

On the flip side, campus visits could also be a way for a candidate still building campaign infrastructure to find cheap and energetic help.

“On colleges, there can be a lot of volunteer opportunities, people looking for internships, and students eager to do grunt work for a campaign,” Knotts said.

Marryat said she’s just eager to hear what O’Rourke can offer.

She admits she will be listening to candidates with the ears of her generation, which cares about issues like lowering student debt, since they’ve seen it balloon; combating the effects climate change, since they’ve seen the Earth get hotter; and gun control, since they’ve grown up in a post-Columbine era of school shootings.

Marryat, who is still undecided on her 2020 pick, said her choice will ultimately be more about the person than their policy.

“First and foremost, it’s all about picking the right candidate who can get out the vote and get people excited. Maybe it’s Beto. We'll see,” she said.

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Is there something you want us to unpack about 2020 in South Carolina? Do you want to know where the candidates stand on a particular issue? Tell us what is important to you by replying directly to this newsletter anytime, or send me a line directly at cbyrd@postandcourier.com.

Bag ban fight comes back in Senate hearing

The bag ban fight is back in the Statehouse.

New efforts to outlaw local bans on plastic bags and other single-use containers have reignited a fierce debate between the plastic industry and state legislators who have championed such prohibitions.

The back-and-forth comes the same week a dead whale in the Philippines was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

Read more about the latest legislative showdown, and who described bans on single-use plastics "emotions based."

In other news:

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AND ONE MORE THING: Nikki Haley has some words for Bernie Sanders about health care costs

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Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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