WASHINGTON — The path remains far from certain, but South Carolina Democrats are already giddy at the possibility that longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn could become the next speaker of the House.
For now, Democrats insist they are focused on the November midterm elections. But the increasing chatter about Clyburn, who lives in Columbia, climbing to one of the nation's most influential roles has been hard to ignore.
"It would be the greatest thing in the world," S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said. "It would really benefit the state of South Carolina from an economic perspective in a way that can't be overstated."
Standing in Clyburn's way remains a series of obstacles.
First, of course, Democrats have to win back the House majority, a proposition that polls suggest is increasingly likely but remains far from a sure thing.
Then, current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would need to fail to garner enough votes to retake the speakership herself. Pelosi has made clear she intends to pursue the gavel if Democrats reclaim the majority, but lingering discontent among the party's rank-and-file members could end up taking the decision out of her hands.
While Clyburn has been more open about his ambition to become speaker in recent months, he still says he will only run for the office if Pelosi can't get enough votes. He'd then have to beat out current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who might also pursue the job, as well as any other Democrats who run.
But Clyburn would enter the speaker's race with a significant advantage: The Congressional Black Caucus, a group of more than 40 African-American members in the House that overwhelmingly backs Clyburn and would likely leap at the opportunity to elect the country's first ever black speaker.
If all those contingencies do line up, Clyburn said he could take his longtime advocacy on the Palmetto State's behalf to new heights.
"It sure wouldn’t be a negative,” he said.
Importance of the job
As an example of the type of benefits the state can receive from having lawmakers in influential positions, Clyburn pointed to his support of the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency, which has helped to develop valuable new waterlines in more rural parts of the state and attract businesses.
Elevating Clyburn to the top role in the House would give South Carolina its highest level of influence in Congress since at least 2003, when former U.S. Sens. Fritz Hollings and Strom Thurmond ended their 36 years of serving together, said Tyler Jones, a Charleston-area Democratic strategist.
"I think it would be a game changer for South Carolina, both politically and for our state in general," Jones said.
Only two South Carolinians have ever served as U.S. House speaker, and none since the 19th century.
Langdon Cheves, a Charleston Republican, served as the ninth speaker, from 1814 to 1815, playing an instrumental role in defeating the recharter of the First Bank of the United States, a national bank run by the government.
James Lawrence Orr, a Democrat from Craytonville, spent a year and a half as speaker in the late 1850s before joining the Confederate army and then becoming governor of South Carolina after the Civil War. President Ulysses Grant would later appoint him U.S. ambassador to Russia.
The importance of the speaker has only risen in recent decades, said Josh Huder, a congressional expert at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute.
"They are the adjudicator of the House agenda," Huder said. "That has massive, massive privileges when it comes to directing funds to a particular state or a particular project."
While the speaker can decide what comes to the floor, they can't force bills across the finish line without broad support. For that reason, College of Charleston political science professor Jordan Ragusa argues that the speaker's more unilateral power is blocking legislation that would be unfavorable to the state.
But on certain issues that have tended to achieve more bipartisan support, like infrastructure and defense spending, Ragusa said that could allow Clyburn to direct more funds toward his home state.
Good for the state
Even some South Carolina Republicans, though reluctant to even entertain the possibility of losing their House majority, quietly concede that a Clyburn speakership would offer a modicum of a silver lining.
Although they vehemently disagree on many political issues, many GOP members of the delegation say they like Clyburn personally and would at least feel more comfortable approaching him as speaker than another Democrat they don't know as well.
"I guess the argument could be made that he's from the state and we would definitely get a preference with him," U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, said. "You'll never see me vote with him, but when it comes to the good of South Carolina, I would definitely go to him."
That shouldn't be surprising, experts say. Partisan disputes on hot-button issues may make the most headlines, but Huder said the "idea that partisanship is the end-all, be-all of all politics on Capitol Hill is overblown."
"The fact is there are still tons of regional and state interests that will unite a congressional delegation," Huder said, "and they’ll work together to accomplish goals that benefit the state broadly."
Beyond legislation, some Democrats also feel that elevating a black Southern lawmaker to the party's top position could help the party politically as it looks to expand beyond its traditional power centers in the northeast and west coast.
As Pelosi has demonstrated, the top House Democrat plays a key symbolic role in representing the party on the national stage.
"Clyburn as speaker would certainly give us the ability to broaden our appeal geographically and start to compete in some of these southern states that have been largely ignored by the national party over the last couple of decades," Jones said.