A few months ago, South Carolina political activist Johnnie Cordero took the stage at a historically black college in Rock Hill for a presidential town hall and delivered impassioned remarks about a subject that long has troubled him: the killing of young black men at the hands of law enforcement officials.
When he glanced over at the Democratic candidate on the stage with him, he was surprised by what he saw: tears gathering in the eyes of Tom Steyer, a billionaire who is staking his presidential bid on a strong showing among African Americans in South Carolina.
“The perception is that he has true empathy,” said Cordero, who last month endorsed Steyer in the Californian’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination – part of a growing number of African Americans in the state to lend their support to a candidate viewed as a long shot for the presidency.
“We know that no president is going to walk into the Oval Office and wave a magic wand, and all of a sudden, everything’s going to change,” said Cordero, who is chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina. “But what we want is someone there who understands our issues and who is willing to address them.”
Steyer is lavishing his time and money on South Carolina – spending millions on televisions ads, building a substantial staff and picking up endorsements from African American activists like Cordero as he courts the black voters who will make up roughly 60% of the Democratic primary electorate when the state votes on February 29. Those are the same voters who former Vice President Joe Biden is counting on to right his struggling campaign.
Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager with an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion, already has spent more than $18.7 million on advertising to target South Carolina voters, swamping all of his rivals, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. The No. 2 candidate in ad spending in South Carolina as of Tuesday: former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, at just $1.4 million.
Biden, who has staked his presidential ambitions on a strong showing in the state, had spent about $857,000 in South Carolina as of Wednesday morning.
In addition, Steyer’s South Carolina staffers now number 102, more than twice the 44 people Biden’s camp says it now employs in the Palmetto State. Biden officials say that number is expected to grow in the days ahead.
There are signs the investment might be paying off. While there’s been little recent public polling in the state, a Fox News poll early last month showed Steyer battling with Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders for second place in South Carolina. And his campaign on Wednesday touted a RealClearPolitics polling average that puts him between Biden and Sanders, who won Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire.
“There’s a tendency to dismiss Steyer as simply a billionaire who can spend lots of money on TV ads,” said Jordan Ragusa, a political scientist at the College of Charleston and co-author of the new book “First in the South: Why the South Carolina Presidential Primary Matters.”
“Certainly, the ads are important,” he said. But Steyer “is working the ground probably better than any of the candidates that are still in the field.”
Steyer is hoping for strong results in South Carolina and Nevada, which votes February 22, to build momentum for his unorthodox bid.
As the nominating race moves to those two states, “we’re now looking at the real Democratic Party, the wonderful diversity of the Democratic Party and the American people,” Steyer said Wednesday on CNN, the day after his sixth-place showing in New Hampshire’s primary.
“Whoever is going to be the Democratic candidate has to pull together the Democratic Party across all differences,” he said. “I think Nevada and South Carolina will be a very good test of that, and I look forward to that test.”
Biden also views South Carolina as a crucial springboard, following disappointing fourth- and fifth-place results in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively. In one sign of the state’s importance to his presidential ambitions, the former vice president on Tuesday night abandoned his planned primary-night event in New Hampshire and jetted to South Carolina for a launch party there.
“It ain’t over, man,” Biden told supporters in Columbia as the New Hampshire results rolled in late Tuesday. “You can’t be the Democratic nominee and you can’t win a general election as a Democrat unless you have overwhelming support from black and brown voters.”
No new polls of South Carolina voters have been released since Iowa and New Hampshire, but Biden still sits atop the Democratic field in support from black voters nationally.
South Carolina Democratic strategist Tyler Jones said it’s too early to write off Biden’s flagging campaign. But he acknowledged that Steyer has made significant inroads in the state.
There’s “only been one person or one campaign who has knocked on my door in Johns Island in Charleston, South Carolina, and it’s been Tom Steyer’s campaign,” Jones told CNN on Tuesday. “Yeah, that spells serious trouble.”
“Who knew Tom Steyer would be Biden’s biggest rival in South Carolina? It’s crazy,” Jones added. “Biden better get up on TV soon and remind voters why they love him or else it’s going to be a very embarrassing finish in South Carolina.”
Political observers say Steyer also is making other savvy choices behind the scenes, such as traveling to rural parts of the state and hiring local activists to reach out to African Americans and younger voters, rather than relying on out-of-state operatives to drive his campaign in South Carolina.
“He’s giving people opportunities who’ve never been involved in politics,” said state Rep. JA Moore, who previously endorsed California’s Sen. Kamala Harris. On Wednesday morning, Moore backed Buttigieg after weighing a Steyer endorsement.
“He’s giving people jobs,” Moore said of Steyer. “I don’t know if people are looking at it about what he’s able to do nationally, people are just so grateful that he’s investing real resources here in South Carolina.”
A recent Steyer ad features Edith Childs, an African American county council member from Greenwood, South Carolina, who is credited with inspiring then-Sen. Barack Obama’s “Fired Up! Ready to Go” campaign slogan. She’s now endorsed Steyer.
“My guy Tom’s fired up, and Trump’s got to go,” Child says in the ad.
For all the attention Steyer is getting in South Carolina, he remains a long shot for the nomination.
He’s polling in low single digits nationally. And despite a long history as a political donor, he has a mixed record in elections. In the 2014 election cycle, for instance, he spent $70 million to influence congressional contests and lost more US Senate races than he won.
Steyer’s campaign also has had a high-profile stumble in South Carolina.
Last November, a top aide in the state resigned after accessing volunteer data from the campaign of Harris, who had built a strong field operation before ending her campaign in December.
Another controversy erupted earlier this month after a prominent Biden supporter, Columbia lawyer and state legislator Dick Harpootlian, suggested that Steyer had paid off a prominent African American lawmaker for his support by hiring him as a consultant.
Black legislators called on Biden to disavow the comments – a demand Steyer repeated twice on the debate stage in New Hampshire last week. Biden responded that he had spoken with Harpootlian “and he in fact is, I believe, sorry for what he said.”
Despite Steyer’s spending spree, the race still favors Biden at the moment, said College of Charleston’s Ragusa. And a Biden endorsement from a prominent figure, such as South Carolina’s US Rep. Jim Clyburn, could further cement the former vice president’s standing, Ragusa said.
Clyburn, one of the most influential politicians in South Carolina and highest-ranking African American in the US House of Representatives, has not ruled out endorsing a candidate but has said he won’t do so before the February 25 presidential debate in Charleston, four days before the primary.
And Steyer faces doubts about his electability. The Californian spent a combined $36 million on advertising in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and failed to secure a single delegate in either.
“Electability matters to the state’s African American voters in a way I don’t think it does to white voters – although I think all Democrats are concerned about finding someone who can beat Donald Trump,” Ragusa said.
“It’s why it’s still Biden’s firewall,” he added. “He’s got a good reputation in the African American community. He’s visited here, and he has that connection to the nation’s first African American president.”
CNN’s David Wright contributed to this story.