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Black lawmakers sprint to Clinton's aid

Black lawmakers sprint to Clinton's aid
© Greg Nash

Black Democrats are closing ranks around Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump must not pull a bait-and-switch on American workers Jewish groups divided over Hanukkah party at Trump hotel Colo. AG: Electoral College lawsuit could cause 'chaos' MORE amid growing fears that Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: Trump sits down with Fox Democrats: Where the hell are You? Sanders on Trump pick: This is how a rigged economy works MORE poses a real threat to her presidential candidacy.

The Congressional Black Caucus PAC this week voted to make its endorsement of Clinton official, and “more than a dozen” CBC members will be storming South Carolina later this month to stump for her ahead of the state’s Feb. 27 Democratic primary, according to CBC Chairman G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldJustices consider redistricting in Virginia, NC La. rep picked to lead Congressional Black Caucus Black Caucus head won't commit in Dems' leadership race MORE (D-N.C.).

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Clinton leads Sanders by a wide margin in the Palmetto State, particularly among black voters. But the Vermont senator’s blowout victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday — combined with his surprisingly close finish in Iowa the week before — has some Clinton supporters concerned that she’s failing to connect with younger voters.

“There are serious concerns that the millennial gap is as wide as it is. And I would hope that over the next day or two they would figure out a strategy to address it,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a CBC member and Clinton backer, said Wednesday.

But an even bigger worry for the Clinton campaign is that the former secretary of State could lose her grip on the black vote, a constituency long seen as a firewall in the primary.

“This might be the scare that the campaign needs,” Thompson said of Clinton’s loss in New Hampshire. “And sometimes it takes a shellacking to get you back to reality.” 

Clinton allies on Capitol Hill aren’t in full-scale panic mode yet. But with just over a week to go before the next Democratic contest, in Nevada, they’re questioning Sanders’s credentials as an advocate for minorities. 

“It’s good to have new friends, but I would prefer to have true friends. Hillary Clinton has been a true friend to the African-American community for more than 40 years. During that same period of time, Bernie Sanders has been largely missing in action,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a CBC member, said on a Wednesday conference call organized by the Clinton campaign.

Clinton allies are confident that she will perform better in Nevada and South Carolina, which have more racially diverse populations than Iowa and New Hampshire.

“People there know her better,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, said of voters in southern states.

“I think the great majority of African-American voters, at this moment, at this time, would be more inclined to support the secretary,” added Lewis, who plans to stump for Clinton in South Carolina.

But Sanders is making an aggressive play for black voters ahead of the South Carolina primary, with hopes that his early successes will help him break through.

On Wednesday, he sat down with former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who endorsed Sanders last week, and the Rev. Al Sharpton at a famed soul-food restaurant in Harlem. In addition, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated African-American writer known for his widely discussed piece on slavery reparations, said he plans to vote for Sanders.

In one potentially worrying sign for Clinton, an article in the liberal magazine The Nation titled “Why Hillary Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” was being widely shared Wednesday on social media.

While there’s little to suggest an exodus of black voters from Clinton, it’s clear that some are giving Sanders a second look.

But black lawmakers in Congress are not among them.

They argue that the former first lady has a stronger legislative record on issues important to their constituents compared to what they view as mere rhetoric from Sanders. 

“If you compare the record of Hillary Clinton on the issue of the gun violence epidemic that impacts the African-American community with the record of Bernie Sanders, it’s not even a close call,” Jeffries said, referring to Sanders’s votes against various gun control bills in Congress.

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) pointed to Clinton’s efforts on education while serving as first lady of Arkansas, recalling how he attended a one-room school while growing up in the state.

“You can’t take away that kind of engagement, that kind of involvement, that kind of knowledge, that kind of awareness,” he said.

Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas), another Clinton supporter, acknowledged Sanders’s success in attracting younger voters. Still, he said the unique politics of New Hampshire make Tuesday’s results a poor gauge of things to come.

“It doesn’t concern me at all,” Veasey said. “The district that I represent is heavily Hispanic and African-American, and hardly anyone that I’ve talked to — even with everything that’s happened — I don’t hear anyone talking about Bernie. ... So I feel good.” 

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the CBC PAC, said Clinton received 90 percent of the vote from the group’s 20-member board. There was no support for Sanders, but several members abstained, preventing a unanimous vote for Clinton.

The majority of the CBC’s 46 members have endorsed Clinton’s bid.

Meeks said Clinton needs to adopt an optimistic tone and talk more “about the future and what that means for these young people.”

One wildcard might be South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and prominent CBC member who has yet to endorse a presidential candidate.

Clyburn told The Hill in a taped interview that he plans to “come to a decision” on an endorsement after discussing it with his family and friends over the weekend.

“Mr. Clyburn is so well respected in South Carolina. Anyone that he would endorse would get significant votes because of it,” Butterfield said.

Davis, while standing behind Clinton as his first choice, suggested that the Vermont Independent could potentially attract more black voters if he focused his message on issues that resonate with them, like bias in the criminal justice system.

“I think one can talk about reforming the judicial system, but you gotta say a lot about what that reform means,” Davis said. 

“And if you can talk as passionately about that as you talk about breaking up Wall Street, taking away some of the economic influence that the big banks and big conglomerates have in this country, then I really think that African-American voters will flock to that.”

Clinton’s supporters are trying to portray her as the more effective legislator. While they support many of Sanders’s ideas, they say they don’t think he can accomplish them.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking House Democrat, recently carved the distinction this way: “He is an idealist. ... Hillary Clinton is a very idealistic pragmatist.”

It’s a message being echoed by Clinton’s CBC backers. 

“I hope the students would understand the big picture, and that is, Sen. Sanders’s message might be appealing, but is it realistic?” Butterfield said Wednesday.

Butterfield attributed Sanders’s success with millennials to the “inexperience” of those young voters. 

“Many of these are first-time voters, and Sen. Sanders’s message resonates with a younger generation because of the promises that he’s making,” Butterfield said. “It’s not a disparagement on the new voters. It’s the fact that many of them are inexperienced and have not gone through an election cycle before. 

“You listen to the message, and then you make a second evaluation about whether it’s realistic.”

Ben Kamisar and Molly K. Hooper contributed.