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South Carolina's most valuable Democrats for 2020 presidential primary

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Top row (from left to right): Tyler Jones, Jim Clyburn, Christale Spain, Marguerite Willis, Gilda Cobb-Hunter. Bottom row: Jaime Harrison, Mandy Powers Norrell, Joe Cunningham, Trav Robertson. File

As Democratic presidential candidates descend on South Carolina ahead of the "First in the South" February 2020 primary, the hunt for influential supporters and staffers in the state has begun.

Many of the state's top catches have already reported receiving a flurry of calls from candidates and their campaign teams in recent weeks, a trend that is expected to continue for months to come.

In consultation with some of the party's most plugged-in officials, The Post and Courier compiled this list of some of the most potentially helpful Democrats in the Palmetto State — people who could play a pivotal role, both in public and behind the scenes, in shaping the primary's outcome (in alphabetical order by category):

Elected officials

  • Steve Benjamin
    • Columbia’s popular mayor took on a national role this year as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, but he already had significant influence in South Carolina’s Midlands.
  • Jim Clyburn
    • The closest figure South Carolina Democrats have to a kingmaker, the Columbia congressman will undoubtedly be the most sought-after adviser in the state during the primary. In addition to his national profile as the third-ranking House Democrat — and the highest-ranking African American in Congress — Clyburn has an unparalleled network in South Carolina after serving as the 6th district’s representative for 26 years. 
  • Gilda Cobb-Hunter
    • The longest-serving black State House member at 27 years, Cobb-Hunter has sizable influence in the critical Orangeburg area. She also recently took on a broader role beyond South Carolina as president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
  • Joe Cunningham
    • The Charleston-area’s new congressman will be resolutely focused foremost on winning his own re-election in what is expected to be a hyper-competitive race. But he can also serve as a valuable guide, particularly in the Lowcountry.
  • Chandra Dillard
    • Though Dillard may draw fewer headlines than some of her Statehouse colleagues, Democrats often point to the Greenville lawmaker as a rising star in the party who can help candidates in blue urban Upstate precincts.
  • Dick Harpootlian
    • The loquacious former S.C. Democratic Party chairman won a state Senate seat last year. But even if he wasn’t an elected official, Harpootlian would have inevitably found a way to insert himself into the primary process, as he has in many cycles past. 
  • Marlon Kimpson
    • Elected to the state senate in 2013, Kimpson wasted no time making his mark as a progressive member of the deliberative body. He plans to reprise his moderator role from 2016 for South Carolina’s Democratic presidential primary, hosting a series of town halls with the candidates in the Lowcountry.
  • John King
    • A state representative from Rock Hill, King is the past chairman of the S.C. Legislative Black Caucus. He’s already turned some heads in the early days of the 2020 race by dinging Kamala Harris for announcing her campaign on Martin Luther King Day, a day he considers sacred.
  • Gerald Malloy
    • The state senator from Hartsville holds powerful sway with a bloc of Democrats in his chamber and in the Pee Dee, and he flirted with the idea of running for governor in 2018.
  • Russell Ott
    • A state representative from St. Matthews, Ott knows more than most about how Democrats can succeed in the South Carolina’s rural areas. He is also the son of former S.C. House Minority Leader Harry Ott, who is now the president of the state’s Farm Bureau and has deep knowledge of agricultural policy.
  • Mandy Powers Norrell
    • Norrell’s profile rose last year when Democratic gubernatorial nominee James Smith chose the Lancaster state representative as his running mate. Though that campaign resulted in a loss, Norrell’s local success in a conservative district positions her as one of the state’s few Democratic lawmakers with proven appeal to more moderate voters.
  • Todd Rutherford
    • The S.C. House minority leader, who has represented much of downtown Columbia for two decades, is one of the most energetic presences in the Statehouse and would bring a loud voice to the stump if he chooses to back a candidate.
  • Vincent Sheheen
    • The two-time former Democratic nominee for governor, Sheheen has continued in his role as a state senator from Camden. Having run in a couple of statewide campaigns himself, few elected officials in South Carolina know more about what it takes.
  • Stephen Wukela
    • Wukela won a third term as the mayor of Florence, the Pee Dee’s largest city, in 2016. His quadrennial oyster roast for midterm elections brings out many of the state's top candidates. One of Wukela's brothers, Michael, is a Democratic operative who used to work for Benjamin in Columbia. 


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  • Phil Chambers
    • A former top adviser for Smith’s gubernatorial campaign and the S.C. Democratic Party chief of staff, Chambers became the first Democratic operative in the state to sign up for a potential campaign, moving to Los Angeles to join Mayor Eric Garcetti’s political action committee.
  • Kendall Corley
    • The political director for Smith's 2018 gubernatorial campaign, Corley has had a hand in many South Carolina races, including for Barack Obama and Benjamin. Corley’s specialization in African-American outreach gives him expertise in S.C.’s most important primary voting bloc.
  • Ashley Medbery Floyd
    • After helping to build Archie Parnell’s strong fundraising apparatus, Floyd left the embattled candidate’s campaign and immediately improved Smith’s gubernatorial operation. A former finance director for the S.C. Democratic Party, Floyd also worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s 2010 gubernatorial bid.
  • Stephen Groves
    • A top advance staffer on Elizabeth Colbert-Busch’s unsuccessful 2013 campaign in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, Groves has since gone on to work for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and for U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala. Groves recently left Jones’ office, opening him up for new opportunities.
  • Scott Harriford
    • James Smith’s body man and deputy political director during the 2018 governor’s race, Harriford has since taken a new job as a field representative for Cunningham in Charleston. Though he’s less experienced than many of the other people on this list, Democratic operatives in the state view Harriford as a rising up-and-comer.
  • Mariah Hill
    • The winning campaign manager for Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, Hill was also a field organizer for Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign and a top aide for Jason Kander’s U.S. senate campaign in Missouri.
  • Scott Hogan
    • Hogan came to South Carolina last year to lead James Smith’s campaign for the final few months of the governor’s race. He has a wealth of national and statewide campaign experience, including for Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • Tyler Jones
    • After steering Democrat Joe Cunningham’s improbable election upset in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District as his general consultant, Jones was widely viewed as one of the hottest commodities among Palmetto State Democratic operatives. He took an early leap by signing on as the state director for a group trying to draft Beto O’Rourke into the race.
  • AJ Lenar
    • A Greenville-based ad maker for national firm GMMB, Lenar recently worked on the TV spots for Cunningham's congressional campaign and has clients all over the country.
  • Lachlan McIntosh
    • One of South Carolina’s most experienced Democratic consultants, McIntosh got his first taste of presidential politics back in 1992 on Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s campaign. In the decades since, McIntosh has helped candidates at a wide range of levels and also served as executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party.
  • Clay Middleton
    • The South Carolina state director for Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in 2016, Middleton went on to become a regional political director in Florida for the general election. He also led the state Democratic party’s candidate recruitment efforts for the 2018 midterms and has worked for several other S.C. politicians.
  • Alyssa Miller
    • Miller was the communications director for James Smith’s gubernatorial campaign during the primary and went on to manage David Baria’s U.S. senate campaign in Mississippi. In addition to her work with several high-profile campaigns and state parties, she also led public affairs at two Planned Parenthood outposts.
  • Antjuan Seawright
    • A Democratic strategist with his own firm, Seawright regularly appears on Fox News as a Democratic sparring partner and recently became a contributor for Buzzfeed News.
  • Christale Spain
    • Formerly the executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Spain recently took on a position in Clyburn’s office. She has presidential primary experience, having led political outreach in S.C. for Bernie Sanders in 2016, and she also leads the state party’s black womens' caucus, a crucial demographic for any successful primary candidate.
  • Jalisa Washington-Price
    • Because most Democrats expected Washington-Price to be working at a national congressional level for the 2020 cycle, rather than a South Carolina presidential level, she was not initially included on this list. But Washington-Price decided to leave her relatively new job as chief of staff of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to become the S.C. state director for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris' campaign — a valuable pick-up given her experience as S.C. political director for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.
  • Allie Watters
    • As finance director for Cunningham’s congressional campaign, Watters helped the first-time candidate raise $2.3 million, the biggest one-cycle haul in the district’s history. Notably, she did it while sticking to Cunningham’s promise to refuse corporate PAC money, an increasingly popular policy for Democratic candidates.

Party leaders

  • Kate Franch
    • Franch won a second term as Greenville County Democratic Party chairwoman last year. Though the Upstate remains a conservative stronghold, Greenville County has the third highest number of Democratic primary voters after Richland and Charleston.
  • Carol and Don Fowler
    • The one package deal on this list, both of the Fowlers led the South Carolina Democratic Party at various points and are longtime supporters of the Clintons.
  • Jaime Harrison
    • An Orangeburg native, Harrison worked for Clyburn for years before becoming the first African-American chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. After then launching an unsuccessful bid for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, eventual winner Tom Perez appointed him as an associate chairman and counselor. Harrison has been actively exploring a possible run against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2020.
  • Matt Kisner
    • In addition to his day job as a University of South Carolina philosophy professor, Kisner leads the Democratic Party in Richland County, which has the highest concentration of primary voters in the state.
  • Lessie Price
    • The only person on this list from Aiken, Price is the 1st vice chair of the S.C. Democratic Party and has served for decades on the city council, where she was the first woman elected at-large in 1987. 
  • Brady Quirk-Garvan
    • After Cunningham’s victory last year, the first by a Democrat in S.C.’s 1st Congressional District since 1978, many Democrats pointed to Quirk-Garvan’s work building up the local party in recent years as a key factor.
  • Trav Robertson
    • Before becoming the South Carolina Democratic Party's current chairman, Robertson led campaigns in the Palmetto State and beyond for 20 years.


  • Boyd Brown
    • A former state lawmaker and Democratic National Committee member turned lobbyist, Brown recently took on a national role in the ‘Draft Beto’ group. He served as state chairman for Martin O’Malley in 2016.
  • Amy Hayes
    • A former York County Democratic Party chairwoman, Hayes has remained hyper-involved in local politics in the Rock Hill area and is the type of tireless activist who would be valuable to any campaign.
  • Jim Hodges
    • The last Democratic governor in South Carolina, Hodges has since become a lobbyist but remains active in party politics. He served as a national co-chair for Obama’s 2008 campaign.
  • Sam Johnson
    • A former aide to Benjamin, Johnson now works with Loveday at NP Strategy and has advised several other candidates in the state.
  • Amanda Loveday
    • A former executive director for the S.C. Democratic Party and spokeswoman for Clyburn, Loveday joined the private sector in 2016 at high-powered public relations firm NP Strategy. She recently took on a role as one of Gov. Henry McMaster’s appointees to the S.C. Election Commission.
  • Phil Noble
    • Though Noble fell far short in the gubernatorial primary last year, the Charleston businessman has been a fixture on the fringes of Democratic politics in South Carolina for decades and has made plenty of connections along the way.
  • Joe Riley
    • The 40-year former mayor of Charleston, Riley continues to carry clout in Lowcountry Democratic politics and backed Cunningham last year.
  • Bakari Sellers
    • Before he earned a national reputation as a CNN political commentator, Sellers was the youngest state lawmaker in South Carolina history. His initially preferred candidate was former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, so he has become a free agent since Patrick decided not to run.
  • James Smith
    • As the most recent top-of-the-ticket statewide Democratic candidate in South Carolina and a Statehouse veteran, Smith has a large network to tap into for the candidate of his choosing. He is a close ally of former Vice President Joe Biden, who endorsed and campaigned for him in the governor’s race. If Biden opts not to run, he will be a coveted free agent.
  • Marguerite Willis
    • Even before launching an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, Willis was well known in S.C. Democratic circles as a top donor for other candidates. Though she fell far short of Smith, Willis performed particularly well in parts of the Pee Dee, where she lives, and the Upstate.

Honorable mentions: State Reps. Justin Bamberg, Beth Bernstein, Jerry Govan and Leon Stavrinakis; state Sens. John Matthews, Mia McLeod and Nikki Setzler; Mayor John Tecklenburg; Operatives — Phil Bailey, Duane Cooper, Pat Drupp, Phil Dudley, Mike McCauley, Jonathan Metcalfe, John Moffett, Nick Sottile, Brandon Upson, Jimmy Williams and Michael Wukela; Activists/Others — Julie Edwards, Anton Gunn, Kaye Koonce, John Kraljevich and former Gov. Dick Riley.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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