Clinton seeks to build African-American bulwark

Clinton seeks to build African-American bulwark
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Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Establishment-backed Vukmir wins Wisconsin GOP Senate primary Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat MORE is seeking to ramp up her enthusiasm and support among African Americans. 

Clinton already holds a huge advantage among black voters compared to her top rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Ellison wins Minnesota AG primary amid late domestic violence allegations Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat MORE (I-Vt.). 

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An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll this month found Clinton maintaining a 54-point lead over Sanders among African Americans. 

Yet Clinton is taking nothing for granted with a voting block that could deliver a knockout blow to Sanders in the primary season, and that could also help her through massive turnout in November, particularly in swing states such as Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. 

Clinton on Friday will travel to Atlanta to formally launch “African Americans for Hillary,” the group of black supporters started by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) meant to do “energize, organize and earn support in the community,” a Clinton campaign official said.

She’ll meet with African American clergy while in Atlanta and attend an organizing event with Lewis, the civil rights leader who in 2008 walked back an endorsement of Clinton and threw his support behind Barack Obama.

Clinton is also headed on Friday to South Carolina to give the keynote address at an NAACP banquet in Charleston, where she’ll speak about criminal justice reform.

South Carolina is a key state for Clinton. If she can defeat Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina could deal a final blow to her strongest competitor. 

Conversely, if Sanders wins either or both of the first two states, South Carolina’s importance as a line of defense for Clinton will grow. The Feb. 27 primary is the first that will include a large percentage of black voters after contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

To help win the state, Clinton is dispatching black lawmakers including Reps. Alcee HastingsAlcee (Judge) Lamar HastingsOcasio-Cortez draws ire from Democrats: ‘Meteors fizz out’ Nunes leaves in middle of hearing following questions on Russia probe Lawmakers consider provision banning killing of dogs, cats for food MORE (D-Fla.) and Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksOcasio-Cortez tiptoes into Washington New Dem star to rattle DC establishment Proxy advisors do need to be regulated MORE (D-N.Y.) to South Carolina to make her case, according to sources with knowledge of the plan.

That comes on the heels of a conference call Clinton held with members of the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this week. 

While Clinton is seen as a favorite of black voters, there are still drops of ill will for the Clintons in South Carolina. Former President Bill Clinton made waves in 2008 when he unfavorably compared Obama’s victory in South Carolina to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s in 1988.

Bill Clinton—dubbed by some as the first black president in his administration-- accused the Team Obama at the time of injecting racism into the campaign.

Eight years later, the comments still rub some people the wrong way. 

“There were a lot of hard feelings and I think it still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of some,” said one African American academic who follows these issues closely and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the Clintons.

Others argue that voters have moved on. 

“That was then. This is now,” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst and author who often speaks about African American matters, said in an interview.

“It will have no resonance whatsoever,” Hutchinson added, noting that the Clintons have “extensive tires” with African American community leaders, pastors, and business executives.

Black voters were a key part of the coalition that helped Barack Obama win presidential elections in 2012 and in 2008, when he took 95 percent of their vote. Clinton is focused on rebuilding the Obama voting blocks, which also includes young voters and Hispanics.

A Clinton campaign official pointed out that the Democratic frontrunner has been meeting with a number of stakeholders to discuss issues that most matter to the community including voting rights, criminal justice reform, the economy and education.  And she received endorsements from more than 50 black mayors from around the country.

The official also highlighted her meeting in August with members of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts,” Clinton told the leaders at the time, speaking about racism. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we could do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them, to live up to their own God-given potential.”

Still, African American leaders concede that there’s more work for Clinton to be done to win their support.

For starters, Hastings said his constituents want to see more of the candidate.

“The greatest thing I’m hearing is ‘Where is Mrs. Clinton?’ among my constituents both white and black,” he said. “She hasn't been there a lot.”

Hastings went on to explain that he tells them it’s still early in the process and Clinton is spending much of her time in the early states.

Clinton aides point out though that their candidate has traveled to a number of states with March primaries — including Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Texas—that have large African American populations.

As for the general election, Hastings said Clinton should spend even more time in red states and solid blue states where she can generate enthusiasm in black communities. “Because people have aunts, uncles, sisters, friends in other states and that’s how you get people excited,” Hastings said.

“No one is going to beat a Reagan or an Obama with enthusiasm,” said Hastings, who has been a staunch Clinton supporter since 2008. “And therein lies the gap.

“When we don't turn out in large numbers, Republicans win,” he said.