Biden makes hard push for African American vote

Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE is making an aggressive play for African American voters in the South, part of a campaign strategy to ride his front-runner status to an early Democratic primary victory in 2020.

Biden, who served as vice president for eight years under Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaProgressive activist: Democratic nominee will 'need to ride a little bit to the center' Progressive activist: Democratic nominee will 'need to ride a little bit to the center' Juan Williams: Trump's incredible shrinking GOP MORE, the nation’s first black president, made white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va., the focal point of his campaign launch video Thursday.

He’s spent a significant time traveling to South Carolina and other southern states over the years; he’s hiring a diverse group of minority staffers, including Symone Sanders; and has been calling and texting with black lawmakers on Capitol Hill, especially those representing African American communities in the South, trying to win their support.

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While most lawmakers are keeping their powder dry, Biden on Thursday wrapped up the endorsements of former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), the nation’s first African American female senator, and Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondLawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach Democrats keep censure for Trump on the table MORE (D-La.), the former chairman of the 55-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), who got a phone call from Biden on Wednesday.

Those early supporters say Biden is in the strongest position to take on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE, whose policies and fiery rhetoric on immigration and other race-based issues have sparked a backlash from minority voters and lawmakers — many of whom deem him a racist.

Those tensions were particularly pronounced following the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville in 2017, when Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the debate. Biden seized on those remarks in launching his campaign, to the cheers of some African American lawmakers racing to his side.

“Trump has been so destructive to minority communities, cutting government services and raising tuition. Voters have had enough of it. They want to win now and if they can win with a friend whose track record they know, it’s a win-win,” Richmond, who has been putting Biden in touch with his fellow CBC members, told The Hill in a phone interview.

“I’m not sure how quickly [Biden] can put it away,” he acknowledged. But Richmond, who plans to campaign with Biden in the coming days, said winning primaries in the South “can give you a backstop and certainly can give you a consistent lead.”

Biden faces plenty of challenges as he seeks to corner the map in the jam-packed primary.

He’s white and male, and at 76, he’s among the oldest primary contenders in the field at a time when many in the party are seeking generational change and feel the Democrats would have better odds fielding a younger nominee to take on the 72-year-old president. He’s also built a reputation as a centrist legislator, just when the insurgent liberal wing of the party is demanding a full-throated push for progressive policies like a "Medicare for all" health care system and a Green New Deal to tackle climate change — ideas Biden has declined to endorse.

And in seeking the African American vote, he’s facing two younger black candidates, Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE (D-Calif.), 54, and Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters Overnight Health Care: Democrats attack after Trump revives talk of ObamaCare replacement | Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control face major obstacles | CVS investing M to fight teen e-cig use MORE (D-N.J.), 49, rising stars who have growing appeal within that community.

“Biden could not have a deeper relationship [with the black community] than Cory Booker; he couldn’t have a deeper relationship than Kamala Harris,” said Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonOvernight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info House Dem: Trump could start war with Iran to thwart impeachment Lawmakers celebrate 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote MORE (D-Fla.), a member of the CBC.

Wilson, who has enlarged photographs of her and Obama on her office wall, received a text message from the former vice president earlier this week to discuss his candidacy. She said she didn’t call him back because she’s not quite ready to endorse anyone, and responded with a simple text: “I love you and respect you.”

Still, Biden has built up numerous relationships with black lawmakers and civil rights leaders over his long political career. And he’s now appealing for their support as he enters the crowded primary field.

In recent weeks, he’s blanketed South Carolina, among the earliest primary states, giving a eulogy at the funeral of former Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who was Biden’s colleague in the upper chamber for more than three decades, and celebrating Easter on Kiawah Island, a resort destination south of Charleston.

“Biden has a massive foundation of support in the black community and in the CBC because of his relationship with Barack and all that they’ve done. I’ve seen Joe Biden in a black church in the South and it was incredible,” said one former Obama aide who is African American.

“I think he has a lot of support from CBC members who may not be able to say anything at the moment; it is significantly more than people think.”

A wildcard could be House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in Congress, who told The Hill he’s withholding his presidential endorsement until just before the Palmetto State’s primary at the end of February. The two men have worked together for decades in Washington and almost certainly spoke at Hollings’s funeral, where Clyburn also eulogized the late senator.

African Americans make up a sizable chunk of Democratic primary voters in southern states, many of which sit early in the 2020 presidential primary calendar. The Iowa caucuses kick off on Feb. 3, followed by primaries in New Hampshire (Feb. 11), Nevada (Feb. 22), and then South Carolina (Feb. 29), where 27 percent of the voting-age population is black.

Some of the states taking part in Super Tuesday on March 3 include Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Georgia hasn’t picked a date yet but also is eyeing Super Tuesday.

In Alabama, where 26 percent of voting-age residents are black, Biden has picked up another key endorsement, from Sen. Doug Jones (D), who cited Biden’s “ability to bring people together.”

With no Democratic presidential candidate hailing from the South, the contest for those electoral votes is wide open. It’s why Democrats including Harris and Booker — but also Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE and Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegTrump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' Trump hits polling on Fox News: 'Something weird going on at Fox' 2020 Democrats look to cut into Biden's lead with black voters MORE — have been stumping in the South.

Last month, Biden advisers even floated the idea of naming Stacey Abrams, the African American Democratic nominee for Georgia governor last year, as his vice presidential running mate upon his campaign launch, according to Axios, a development that didn’t happen.  

The South “is not locked up yet,” said the former Obama aide. “The VP has a track record and enjoys strong support in the South and has spent a considerable amount of time there. You have to love his chances in the southern states.”