Democrats mull alternative to South Carolina amid divisions over first-in-nation primary

Associated Press/Brynn Anderson
FILE – A person waits in line to vote in the Georgia’s primary election on May 24, 2022, in Atlanta. A new poll shows 71% of voters think the future of the country is at stake when they vote in November’s midterm elections. That’s according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Democrats are quietly discussing plans to propose a possible compromise state as the nation’s first-in-the-nation primary following vocal concerns about South Carolina from all corners of the party. 

The informal talks among strategists, former campaign advisers, activists and those close to state parties are largely centering around three states — Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina — as possible alternatives to kick off the 2024 nominating contest, with proponents citing their racial diversity and general election importance as upsides.  

“There are still conversations happening behind the scenes about this,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “I think there’s a process right now of conversations happening, people getting ducks in a row, and seeing if there’s a collective effort to make this push.” 

When President Biden put his thumb on the scale for South Carolina, the place he won handily in 2020 that supercharged his ascent to the nomination, it rankled Democrats who saw him as having politically motivated tunnel vision about the next presidential election.  

It’s not that Democrats don’t like his choice, but many see more viable options that check the same boxes and offer more benefits — and are now finding themselves in uncomfortable opposition to the administration.  

“The White House put a lot of people in a difficult situation because nobody wants to be fighting the White House on this thing,” Green said. “The obvious move is for people to say together that it should be a diverse state that is competitive in the general election like Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina, and let the White House choose which one they want to go first.” 

Over the past few days, the trio of alternatives have taken on new consideration as calls for another choice intensify. Those three states have been discussed among Democrats who want to maximize the party’s chances of winning against the eventual Republican nominee in 2024, regardless of who’s on the ticket on their own side.  

“Lot more pushback than I expected for the 2024 primary Joe Biden Protection Plan,” said Democratic strategist Max Burns, noting the swiftness of the criticism after Biden sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) earlier this month.  

Georgia, in particular, is top of mind for Democrats eager to find a suitable swap for South Carolina, and Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D-Ga.) success in last week’s runoff has allowed for those voices to be heard with fresh interest.  

Biden won Georgia narrowly while running for president, and now, for the second consecutive cycle, the state has sent Democratic candidates to the Senate, indicating that they can be more effective in their quest to turn the state from purple to blue. 

“Georgia, I think, makes a lot of sense because now it is a major swing state and reliably Democratic in the last couple cycles,” said one former campaign worker who advised a presidential candidate in 2020. 

The large population of Black voters also helps those in favor of the state make their case. In Biden’s letter to the DNC, whose rules and bylaws committee recently voted in favor of South Carolina, Biden emphasized the significance of that crucial constituency having more of a say in shaping the electoral process.  

Those who want Georgia say that state is appealing for the same reason Biden mentioned and note that prominent figures like former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and other voting rights advocates have already put in the organizational muscle to make it competitive long-term.  

On top of that, Georgia doesn’t have the baggage that many say South Carolina will have after Biden pushed it to the front of the line.  

Still, Georgia has its drawbacks, according to some. First, it’s really big, and second, the Atlanta-area media market costs a lot of money, potentially causing smaller upstart candidates with little name recognition or less money to be sidelined from the start.  

“It’s just very expensive. That’s not a consideration that should be easily dismissed,” the former campaign worker conceded, who noted the relative cheapness of other smaller contests with ample diversity. “You couldn’t be an insurgent candidate and win there.” 

Just a few hundred miles away, North Carolina is attractive to many in the party who see its potential to become a mini Georgia. Some believe that with a bigger commitment toward untapped communities, particularly in rural areas and surrounding cities, there are signs that voters may show up for Democrats. 

That won’t happen overnight. But moving it up would go a long way. Democrats will spend the next two years campaigning on the ground on behalf of Biden — or if he declines to run again, other candidates — and will invest valuable time and resources in messaging to make the Democratic Party’s pitch to voters.   

The fast, all-in approach for South Carolina discounts other contests that were working on presenting their cases to the DNC in hopes of securing a better place in the process. 

“All the states who were putting out their proposals are now kind of shoved into the corner,” said the former campaign aide. “They should be pissed.” 

While some feel strongly about proposing alternatives, others have taken a more measured approach in the preliminary conversations. They see strong arguments for a variety of southern states and aren’t necessarily tied to a certain outcome.  

“South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia are really not, in my mind, electorally that far apart from each other to have the votes for Democrats to be established,” said Michael Ceraso, a Democratic strategist who worked for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) when they each sought the presidential nominations.  

Like others supportive of nixing Iowa and New Hampshire from their top perches, Ceraso says there are plenty of reasons to allow the Palmetto State to go first. 

“South Carolina has paid its dues,” he said. “Black voters and their way of life is very reflective in South Carolina.”  

Plus, he said, “Clyburn earned it.” 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was key in helping Biden become the party’s nominee who eventually beat former President Trump, Democrats’ top priority last cycle.  

But there are many who believe other states that may hold less personal nostalgia for Biden still deserve a realistic shot to be first.  

That’s the case with Nevada. Biden earned second place in the Silver State to Sanders and some Democrats believe he wouldn’t have made such a splash in the first Southern primary and gone on to sweep Super Tuesday if he hadn’t gotten a burst of momentum from that caucus, especially after losing so badly in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

“Joe Biden came in second place in Nevada. He wouldn’t have won South Carolina without Nevada. It’s not a harmful state to him,” said the former campaign adviser, who spent considerable time working in the state. “I don’t really understand why they screwed Nevada so much.”  

It’s also inexpensive to compete in and is home to many Black and Latino voters, the latter being a critical bloc that Democrats often admit they are struggling with. A steady investment as first to vote would give the party time to make inroads with that constituency, while also elevating the Black community, some supportive Democrats say.  

“Not only is it very representative, it’s heavily Latino, which South Carolina by the way is not at all, it is also heavily African American,” the former staffer said. “It’s a lot cheaper, it’s much more working-class, it’s out west in the Sun Belt, which is probably the future of how we’re going to win elections at the presidential level.” 

It also has a significant pro-labor workforce, one of the biggest elements of Biden’s last campaign and governing principles as president. Democrats expect unions to play a critical role in the next election against the GOP nominee and believe Nevada would help draw that inherent contrast. 

“Nevada has a good case,” said Burns. “They can argue if they’re left out Dems are spitting in the face of the unions that won them a lot.”

Tags Biden first-in-the-nation primary Georgia Michigan Nevada North Carolina primary South Carolina

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