Washington (CNN)The South Carolina Democratic primary is more than a year out, but the scramble for top political talent is well underway as the Democratic presidential campaigns jockey for advantage in the Palmetto State.
Intense competition for 2020 talent ramps up in South Carolina
The intense early competition among the campaigns is a product of the unusual breadth, depth and diversity of Democratic field. In a presidential year when black voters are likely to have outsize influence in selecting the Democratic nominee, all of the campaigns are focused on building the strongest operations possible in a state where black voters comprised 61% of the Democratic electorate in the 2016 primary election.
If one candidate were to galvanize the black vote in South Carolina, the result could signal viability to voters and donors alike in many of the states in the Southeast that also fall early on the primary calendar.
In recent weeks, advisers for Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Cory Booker, as well as other White House aspirants, have engaged in a fierce battle for operatives in the first-in-the-South primary state. They have courted potential hires with job offers and big titles—or in Biden's case, a promise that the wait would be worth it—as they seek to build their broader network of influencers in the state.
For the campaigns and the campaigns-in-waiting, the importance of South Carolina has meant careful tending of relationships with leaders like Rep. James E. Clyburn — the House majority whip who has pledged to remain neutral in the Democratic primary, but will still have enormous influence over the process — as well as state Rep. Jerry Govan, who is chairman of the black caucus; state Sen. Marlon Kimpson of Charleston; and state House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford.
Several sources who spoke to CNN say that top political talent in the state is being courted most heavily by three hopefuls: Booker, Harris and Biden. Biden's political team has been making calls to South Carolina Democrats to get them on board, possibly to launch a campaign with a solid team in place.
For his part, Booker clinched two top hires in the Palmetto State who'd been pursued by multiple campaigns. Christale Spain will lead the campaign's South Carolina efforts as state director, and Clay Middleton was tapped as a senior political adviser for Cory 2020, the campaign announced Monday.
Another talent with strong South Carolina ties, Jalisa Washington-Price, who recently left a top post at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is still being lobbied by several campaigns.
A similar hunt is brewing in Iowa, where presidential hopefuls hope to recreate a winning coalition similar to former President Barack Obama's that launched him into an upset win in South Carolina. Elizabeth Warren created a vacuum by snapping up much of the elite talent earlier this year. Warren hired operatives from Obama's successful 2008 Iowa caucus campaign and those responsible for more recent congressional pickups in November's midterm election. That's left other campaigns scrapping over whose left. Harris and Booker have named a campaign chair and state director for the Hawkeye State, respectively.
"When I tell you this race is wide open, I'm not trying to be coy — I'm being deadly serious: there are 100 ways this election could go, and right now you don't see anyone who has put the ground game in place," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson in a telephone interview Friday evening. "There's not anyone who has that front-runner status in South Carolina right now."
Robertson noted that for the first time—at least for as long as he's been alive—the state will have two well-funded, well-organized black candidates competing for the Democratic nomination.
"What that means is that they are going to be campaigning to the African-American community — not taking it for granted," Robertson said. "And then when you've got a state where 54.5% to 55.5% of the electorate are women—this will potentially be the first primary where women will have a choice between two, or as many as four, female candidates for the President of the United States. That makes this a completely transformative election cycle, specifically in South Carolina."
If Biden jumps into the race, "there are going to be a lot of people who look at him positively — white and African-American voters — based on his relationship with President Obama," Robertson said, noting that many South Carolinians remember the eulogy that Biden gave at the funeral of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, as well as a his close relationship with Fritz Hollings, a former US senator and governor for the state.
"It could potentially give (Biden) a favorite son type status," he said.
All of the candidates will want to have their operations up and running before Clyburn's famous fish fry on May 10, a must-attend event that will be held, per tradition, on the same night as the Blue Palmetto Dinner and the same weekend as the Democratic State Party Convention.
Harris and Booker, the first two black candidates to enter the 2020 field, both visited South Carolina in January, marking their second visits since October.
The New Jersey lawmaker is set to return to South Carolina on February 10-11, on his first official trip since announcing his candidacy on Friday. He'll come straight from a swing in Iowa.
Booker, along with 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, spoke in the capital city of Columbia on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the annual King Day at the Dome celebration.
Two days before her officia