The two most prominent Democrats in the next two battleground states — Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina — might be taking different approaches toward the upcoming contests in the presidential nomination battle.
In an interview Tuesday, Clyburn said that was no longer the case. Close friends and family have put heavy pressure on him to use his prestige in the state to make it known who he supports.
“That was certainly my intention,” he said of his initial plan to remain neutral. “But I am re-evaluating that. I really am having serious conversations with my family members.”
At his weekly session with reporters Tuesday, Reid reiterated his plan to stay neutral.
Without formally stating who they want him to endorse, Clyburn made clear that the most pressure came from Clinton supporters, particularly his wife and one of his daughters.
He acknowledged that the Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee, chaired by Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), has decided to endorse Clinton but is holding off making it formal out of deference to Clyburn as he considers his own decision.
In the interview, Clyburn said he could not envision a scenario in which he would publicly go against his allies in the CBC — which leaves him with two options, remaining publicly neutral or endorsing Clinton. An endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, does not seem plausible, he said.
If Clyburn did endorse Clinton, it would be a symbolic victory for the former secretary of state and a final attempt to heal the wounds from her previous presidential bid in South Carolina. Eight years ago, as Clyburn remained officially neutral, he adopted the role of unofficial arbiter of how the campaigns behaved. It led to frequent criticisms of Clinton, and particularly Bill Clinton, over allegedly racially tinged comments from the former president about the viability of President Obama’s 2008 campaign.
It led to a 2 a.m. phone call from the former president screaming at Clyburn, according to the congressman’s 2014 political memoir. “If you bastards want a fight, you damn well will get one,” Bill Clinton shouted into the phone.
In the ensuing years they have tried to put that past behind them, and last year Hillary Clinton’s campaign hired a longtime Clyburn aide to run its operation in the Palmetto State. However, a month ago, as Sanders appeared to be surging, Clyburn seemed to reprise his 2008 role again when he told The Washington Post that she should not take for granted the state’s black voter support. If Sanders won big in Iowa and New Hampshire, it “could well be a new day” in South Carolina, he said.
Instead, Clyburn said Tuesday, Clinton’s victory in Iowa, however narrow, held support for the former first lady, particularly among his state’s African-American voters. Even a big Sanders win in New Hampshire would not shift the dynamic in South Carolina, he argued.
“Whatever happens in New Hampshire,” Clyburn said in an interview Thursday, Clinton “got inoculated a bit. It won’t matter a whole lot.”
Clyburn said that he has spoken with his grandson, a college student, about who young voters and students supported. “We’re for Bernie. It’s just generational,” his grandson explained.
Despite the youth vote, Clyburn said Clinton remains steady in South Carolina among voters most likely to show up for the primary. “There’s not been a big surge,” he said of the Vermont senator’s support. “The reliable primary voters that I know don’t seem to have shifted at all.”
In Nevada, while most of Reid’s supporters support Clinton, the Democratic leader said Tuesday he is hoping to get a replay of what happened in 2008 — a fiercely contested primary battle that brought out new voters and in the next few elections boosted Democrats across the state, including his own 2010 re-election effort.
“I didn’t make one eight years ago. I won’t make one now,” Reid told reporters of a presidential primary endorsement.
He then explained what his goals are: “One is to make sure the process is as fair as possible. And number two, register as many Democrats as possible. We registered eight years ago tens of thousands of Democrats, new Democrats. And from my getting involved at this stage, it would cut down the number people who would register.”