Schiff

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks to South Carolina Democrats at the 2017 Spratt Issues Conference in Columbia. Staff/Jamie Lovegrove

COLUMBIA — They're fired up and ready to go. Now the question for South Carolina Democrats is whether they can channel that grass-roots energy into long-elusive victories at the polls.

More than 250 Democratic activists, candidates and operatives from around South Carolina descended on the state's capital this weekend for a day-long summit to strategize and galvanize the party going into 2018.

California Rep. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, rallied the troops at a Friday night dinner to open the seventh annual Spratt Issues Conference.

"Are you ready to end this Trumpian nightmare?" he asked to a standing ovation.

Explaining why a Democrat from a big blue state would take time out after a long week in Congress to visit a smaller red state, Schiff told The Post and Courier that activating Democratic voters in places like South Carolina will be essential if the party hopes to turn the tide nationally.

"We will have perhaps the most critical midterm election in a generation next year and sustaining this kind of activism and energy is going to be tremendously important," Schiff said.

Both of the party's candidates for governor, state Rep. James Smith of Columbia and Charleston businessman Phil Noble, argued why they're more likely to become the first Democrat elected to the state's top office since 1998.

In breakout sessions Saturday, the group looked to develop a common message and platform as the 2018 election cycle gets ready to kick into gear on everything from education and economic development to Confederate monuments and gun policy. Aspiring candidates met in training sessions to learn the basic tools of the trade.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat with experience winning in the South as Louisiana's former lieutenant governor, told the crowd that 2018 is "another opportunity for us."

"South Carolina can turn," Landrieu said, urging Democrats to campaign in neighborhoods where they haven't competed in years past.

South Carolina Republicans aren't sweating. The party that has dominated state politics for years has held plenty of boisterous and well-attended events throughout 2017 without revealing any hint of buyer's remorse for President Donald Trump.

But state Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said an "intensified focus" at this year's conference bodes well for a shift in dynamics.

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Almost every GOP congressman in the state now has a Democratic challenger, and party officials expect more candidates to emerge in the next few weeks. Now efforts are focused on finding credible down-ballot prospects at the local level, said Clay Middleton, the party's lead candidate recruiter. 

The party faithful are convinced the numbers are there to change their fortunes if only they can get more voters to the polls.

"I'm sick of hearing that this state is a Republican state," said state Sen. John Scott, D-Columbia. "That is the farthest thing from the truth."

All of those congressional candidates remain outsiders. A win for any of them would likely require a national blue wave of historic proportions. 

But conference attendees pointed to Archie Parnell, the Sumter Democrat who lost by a surprisingly narrow margin of 3 percentage points to Republican Ralph Norman in the 5th District special election earlier this year, as an example of the possibilities if candidates run outside-the-box campaigns. Parnell is challenging Norman again in 2018.

Former state party Chairman Jaime Harrison, now an adviser at the national Democratic Party, is pushing to redirect the party's approach back to more of a 50-state strategy reminiscent of Howard Dean's days as party leader. He touted new grants and other opportunities for once-neglected state parties to rebound and emphasized the importance of the state's role.

"The path for Democrats to get back to the majority comes through the South," Harrison said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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