Buttigieg

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., speaks at a rural roundtable in Hampton on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have focused on outreach to rural communities in South Carolina, a key early-voting primary state. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

HAMPTON — Growing up in this rural South Carolina town 80 miles west of Charleston, Susan Rowell went to school alongside the children of engineers who were recruited by Westinghouse Electric Corp.

"They probably brought up my standard of education just by being in the classroom with them," Rowell said.

The manufacturing plant changed hands a few times before ultimately closing in 2014, taking hundreds of jobs with it and hindering the surrounding local economy it had helped to support. 

Rowell hopes ailing rural areas can get help from a new president next year and, like other undecided Democratic voters, she is surveying the crowded field of 2020 presidential hopefuls for a candidate to support in South Carolina's critical First in the South primary.

"I love a metropolis as much as anybody," said Rowell, 63. "But there are always going to be small towns, and we don't need to leave them behind as is happening now. So I believe in a federal government that helps put money into areas where the economy needs stimulating."

The past few weeks have seen a steady stream of candidates releasing detailed plans for how they would seek to boost rural communities, with many featuring proposals on investing in broadband expansion, boosting teacher salaries and protecting farmers from international trade disputes.

Many of the policy proposals came in advance of the state fair in Iowa, where rural voters will play a key role in the country's first 2020 Democratic nominating contest. But they apply well to South Carolina, where thousands of voters live far beyond the state's most populous cities.

Tangee Jacobs, a realtor in Fairfield County who chairs the S.C. Democratic Party's rural caucus, said many candidates' emphasis on rural infrastructure and education are on the right track.

But it will take more than posting a white paper online to reach most of the voters who care about it.

"You can have your plan and you can put it out there, but the 70-year-old who doesn't have internet or cable, how are they going to know about the plan?" Jacobs asked. "I realize they can't come to every community, but it is essential in rural areas that you show your face and let them know who you are."

Stay up-to-date on which 2020 presidential candidates are visiting the Palmetto state with The Post and Courier's tracker. Continually updated as candidates campaign in South Carolina in the months leading up to the state’s February 2020 primary.

Many of the leading candidates have ventured away from the the Democratic metro hubs of Charleston and Columbia.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey began his campaign in South Carolina by visiting smaller towns like Winnsboro and Denmark. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas have also both been to Denmark, raging about the city's failing water system.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris held a rural town hall in Hemingway and visited a black-owned business in Marion, drawing praise from local lawmakers like state Sen. Kent Williams for paying attention to rural issues.

Several candidates, like Booker and former Vice President Joe Biden, have offered support for U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn's 10-20-30 formula, which directs 10 percent of federal funds to areas where 20 percent of the population have lived in poverty for 30 years or more.

After a town hall in Aiken this past weekend, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts touted an $85 billion federal grant program to expand broadband access as well as her support for Medicare-for-all, which she argues would relieve the shrinking number of rural hospitals from having to worry about uncompensated care.

"I believe you ought to have a chance to build a secure future anywhere in America and that means urban, small town, rural," Warren said. "A key part of that is to make sure all the right pieces of investment are there." 

Two candidates have now shown their faces in Hampton, a town of about 2,500: Booker and, most recently, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. Rowell has seen both, and she also helped out Harris' campaign after the California senator dispatched an organizer to Hampton, offering office space and housing when available.

"Nobody's ever paid attention to us, so it means a tremendous amount," Rowell said. "(Buttigieg) is very approachable, Sen. Booker's very approachable, and that tells me a lot about their character."

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Republicans have dominated with rural voters in recent elections, and some Democrats fear that will continue without a sustained effort.

RNC spokesman Joe Jackson dismissed Buttigieg's rural plan as little more than "expanding government programs, destroying blue collar jobs, and raising taxes — a plan that South Carolinians rejected in 2016, and will do so again in 2020 when they re-elect President Trump.”

But Buttigieg argued that Trump's trade war with China, which has hit the agricultural industry particularly hard, could create an opening for Democrats. His proposal calls for $500 million in federal funding for "Regional Innovation Clusters" to help states and counties develop economic development projects, boosting rural teacher salaries, raising the minimum wage and creating "Community Renewal Visas" to attract high-skilled immigrant workers to rural areas.

During a town hall in Beaufort, Buttigieg quipped that Trump only views rural America as "the scenery when he's on the way from Trump Tower to a golf course somewhere." 

"The president's taking rural voters for granted while making them worse off," Buttigieg said. "The tariffs are killing farmers, the policies economically have mostly been about benefiting big corporations, and with each decision he's made, it's become that much harder to get ahead in rural America."

For those working outside the agriculture industry, economic development remains a top concern.

John Polk, a member of the Hampton County Democratic Party executive committee, works in Charleston as a tour guide and said many others in his town make hours-long commutes to Columbia, Charleston or Savannah.

"It's a great town, but the jobs and money are just not there," Polk said. "We had plants here but that's all closed down and gone by the wayside. So to have a candidate come here and express his ideas, we're grateful for it."

The outreach could help to win over people like Michelle Power, a teacher from Hampton, who says she doesn't consider herself a Democrat or Republican but wanted to check out Buttigieg because he came to her hometown.

"No matter what we were talking about or what questions were put to the guy, I felt like he responded so well, so I'm impressed with him," Power said. "It's smart for him to come here because when you get to meet him, it brings it down to a more real connection."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.