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SC Democrats prepare to pitch earlier primary spot after 2020 success, Iowa failure

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COLUMBIA — Fresh off a successful 2020 primary, some South Carolina Democrats are already eyeing the possibility of taking on an even more prominent role in future races.

They point to the immediate impact of Joe Biden's win in the state on the heated race, the disastrous Iowa caucuses in which it took weeks to declare a winner and longstanding complaints that the earliest states are too white.

Early proponents of the idea include South Carolina's longtime U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third highest-ranking member of the U.S. House and highest-ranking African American elected official in the country, as well as multiple Democratic National Committee members from the state.

Precise ideas about what should happen vary.

Clyburn's preference is to pair off the four early states, holding New Hampshire and South Carolina's primaries on the same day and Iowa and Nevada's on another, thereby adding more diversity to each contest day.

Others, like South Carolina DNC committeeman Clay Middleton, propose simply moving the Palmetto State earlier in the primary calendar.

"South Carolina should not only be first in the South, it should be first in the nation," Middleton said, pointing to the state's strong track record in recent cycles. 

One obstacle is that New Hampshire has a state law requiring that it hold the first primary in the country.

But longtime state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat and DNC committeewoman, argued that should be no issue and said conversations among officials about changing the order already have begun.

"Laws can be changed, and I don't think the fact that New Hampshire has a state law should preclude the DNC from scrapping it," Cobb-Hunter said. "Nevada and South Carolina are more indicative of the Democratic base across the country, so they should lead the way."

South Carolinians aren't the only ones who feel the state has proven it should take higher priority in the pecking order.

Scott Arceneaux, a Democratic strategist who previously served as the executive director of the Florida and Louisiana Democratic parties, said it "would make a lot of sense to move South Carolina up even earlier than it is."

"That's something the Democrats should seriously look at," Arceneaux said. "It's important to have a Southern state in the mix and South Carolina has been a great indicator. We've talked a bunch about how we need to have more diversity in the early states, and I think you do need to have more diversity earlier."

While some other Southern states may be interested in moving up, Arceneaux argued South Carolina is a good choice because battleground states already receive significant attention and resources in the general election.

In a sign of how little influence Iowa now has in the process and how unrepresentative it is of the national party's preferences, the winner of Hawkeye State's caucuses this year — former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. — dropped out of the race just a few weeks later because of his inability to generate momentum elsewhere.

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Biden's massive 29-point victory in South Carolina, on the other hand, produced huge consequences nationwide within a matter of hours, prompting multiple candidates to drop out of the race and boosting the former vice president back into the lead in national polls.

One change that seems to already have widespread agreement is that the party should entirely rid itself of caucuses.

Even former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he believes caucuses that his home state of Nevada has held for years should be replaced by primaries.

Wil Colom, a DNC committeeman from Mississippi, suggested either creating regional primaries in which several states in various parts of the country vote on the same day or rotating the earliest four states.

"South Carolina tells us a lot about Southern African American voters, which probably gives you a good sense of what's going to happen in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia, at least," Colom said.

Historically, both parties have favored having a few smaller states go earliest in the process because it gives candidates with less money and name recognition a chance to compete on a more level playing field, unlike in bigger states or in a national primary.

Not all S.C. Democrats are ready to get started so early on conversations about the next presidential primary cycle.

The DNC is unlikely to begin seriously considering changes until at least 2021, after a new chairman and potentially a new president, are in place.

Don Fowler, a former chairman of both the DNC and S.C. Democratic Party, said he worries that moving some states could create a cascading series of domino effects — and regardless, he added, there's no reason to talk about it now.

"I think speculation at this point time is just idle talk," Fowler said. "We've got bigger fish to fry right now."

Current S.C. Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said he would refrain from talking about it until after all the primaries are over.

"Right now we're in the middle of a process and discussing this doesn't benefit our nominee," Robertson said.

But many South Carolina Democrats feel they will at least have a strong argument to make. Iowa and New Hampshire "truly don't represent the diversity of this country," said state Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg,  chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus.

"It would be a smart move for the Democratic National Committee to look at states like South Carolina, who give you a much more realistic view of what the rest of the country is feeling and thinking moving into Super Tuesday," he said. 

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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