State Politics

Mayor Pete hires up, Castro cuts SC staff. How 2020 Democrats are prepping for primary

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg is adding more firepower to his South Carolina team with three new hires, hoping to send a clearer message that his underdog campaign is taking the Palmetto State seriously with fewer than 115 days until the primary.

The move comes as at least one campaign, so far, has completely cut its S.C. staff, deciding instead to focus its resources on a strong showing in Iowa’s first primary contest.

Buttigieg’s move also comes as a handful of better-performing contenders look to boost their numbers on the ground in South Carolina as the race heats up.

The Buttigieg campaign told The State Wednesday it has added a political director, deputy political director and a state communications director — all three of them African American — in the Palmetto State, where black voters make up the majority of the Democratic primary electorate and where the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has struggled to spark enthusiasm.

The campaign has been without a South Carolina-based spokesperson since Buttigieg launched his bid in April.

Joining Buttigieg’s S.C. campaign as political director is Abe Jenkins, whose resume includes stints with Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns and as the state Democratic Party’s political director from 2009-2011.

Laurens County Councilman Garrett McDaniel has been hired as the S.C. campaign’s deputy political director, and Berkeley County native Lauren Brown, who worked on Martin Skelly’s 2013 1st Congressional District bid, started as his communications director Thursday.

”Buttigieg epitomizes the change that we want to see in this world, and a new generation always leads the change when it’s required,” Jenkins, a Charleston native and the grandson of civil rights leader Esau Jenkins, said in an emailed statement to The State. “I grew up in a family of human rights activists and educators in South Carolina and Pete is clearly the candidate prepared to move this nation forward into a new era of equality.”

In the coming weeks, Buttigieg’s campaign said it plans to add more organizers to its 40 full-time paid staff and four offices on the ground.

His campaign is far from alone.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s S.C. spokeswoman Paige Hill told The State it has 40 full-time paid staffers and five paid interns on the ground and plans to open more offices in addition to its current five. Polling second in the Palmetto State, the campaign for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said it has more than 40 full-time paid staff in South Carolina, with now 10 offices.

The two top-staffed campaigns in state appear to be U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California. In the past week, Harris has realigned resources in early states to boost her campaign in Iowa.

Sanders’ campaign said it has nine offices and 52 paid staffers on the ground, with plans to add more in the coming months.

Harris’ campaign said it has around 50 full-time paid staffers in state, with plans to open more offices beyond its current five.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who with other presidential candidates will return to the state this week, has about 20 paid staffers on the ground, said Julie McClain Downey, director of his S.C. communications. Downey said there are no immediate plans for additional hires, but the campaign hopes to expand “in the near future.”

“Obviously it costs money to hire staff, and these folks have shown an ability to raise money,” said Gibbs Knotts, College of Charleston political scientist. “Certainly if you look at Barack Obama in 2008, he was really strong in that area (staffing) and it made a difference for his campaign.”

Knotts added that leading up to the 2016 presidential election, though he had staff on the ground, then-candidate Donald Trump focused on carrying his message through his giant rallies, media and Twitter.

But, Knotts said, “There’s only one Donald Trump. The model is to have these staffers on the ground.”

Who’s leaving, hasn’t really arrived?

With about three months left until the Iowa caucuses, a handful of candidates may soon be looking at their Plan B.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas already dropped out of the 2020 race early this month. The New York Times reported O’Rourke’s campaign had been strained financially.

Rather than quit the race altogether, others have instead dropped their staff in some early states, including former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro.

Castro’s campaign confirmed to The State Tuesday it has laid off his South Carolina and New Hampshire staff, instead focusing on other early voting states, news first reported by POLITICO.

“In pushing to keep Secretary Castro’s critical voice in this race, our campaign, like many others, will make adjustments in staffing and resources,” said Castro’s national press secretary, Sawyer Hackett. “This race is shifting as we speak, and Julián will continue to be fearless and defy expectations by making the most of our resources.”

And other candidates have barely made South Carolina a major stop on their 2020 road map, including former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania — who will speak Friday at an environmental justice forum at S.C. State University with other contenders — and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who, despite making the debate stage, has not made the state a feature of her campaign.

A few candidates, while they have visited plenty, have barely any staff on the ground, including author Marianne Williamson.

Though bolstering a campaign with dozens of staffers can get a candidate to the finish line, it does not mean they will cross it, experts say.

“You can have all the good staff in the world but if you don’t have a good candidate, a good message and proper resources, your staff doesn’t matter,” said South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.

“If your budget doesn’t allow for you to have boots and troops on the ground in South Carolina, a place where you have to run a high tech and a high touch campaign, then I think you’re going to have some problems.”

Follow more of our reporting on

See all 9 stories
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.