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2020 campaign trail runs through churches in South Carolina

Presidential candidates hope to make inroads with state’s black voters

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., worships at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church on Feb. 10 in North Charleston, S.C.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., worships at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church on Feb. 10 in North Charleston, S.C. Associated Press files Photo Gallery

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — By now, most Democratic presidential candidates have polished their stump speeches. But when they’re in South Carolina, they may need to add in a sermon.

In a large and diverse primary field, White House hopefuls are angling to develop relationships with black churches. That’s because success in South Carolina, home to the nation’s first Southern presidential primary, could come down to connecting with politically influential churchgoing African Americans.

“Candidates recognize that black churches are the places to be seen and heard,” said Bobby Donaldson, a professor of civil rights history at the University of South Carolina. “If you’re trying to find a captive and captivating audience, then the black church is the perfect place to get your message across.”

Some 2020 candidates are already working to build their relationships with this community. Sen. Kamala Harris of California will attend an Easter service on Sunday in Columbia at a church whose pastor is a lawmaker who recently endorsed her campaign. She swung through a fellowship hall in North Charleston earlier this year and visited churches last fall to rally voters ahead of the midterms.

Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at a historic black church in Columbia, and both have held campaign events in fellowship halls at black churches around the state. In the past week, Sanders held a town hall in a black church in Spartanburg with members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Juli?n Castro, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke have also visited black churches. And in one of her visits to three Charleston-area black congregations in February, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York gave a sermon of sorts, summoning a fiery cadence that spurred shouts of “Amen!” from the crowd of several hundred.

“I love the fact that your Bibles are under your seat,” she told congregants at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist. “When you go on a plane and they say your life preserver is under your seat — OUR life preservers are under our seat!”

Gillibrand said she felt she had been well received, but some observers say such moments can be awkward.

“It seems very, for lack of a better term, inauthentic,” said Jalen Elrod, a black voter and first vice chairman of the Greenville County Democratic Party. “She’d be better served if she came and said, ‘Here’s what I’m about. Here’s what I’m trying to support.'”

Still, the visits allow candidates to introduce themselves to voters. They can also potentially elevate their standing with voters if they secure an official endorsement from church leaders.

That may be part of Harris’ calculus, with her announcement last month of an endorsement from Darrell Jackson. The longtime state senator is also pastor of Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, a Columbia congregation that’s seen as among the most influential in the black community. That’s where she’ll attend Easter services on Sunday.

But Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina political consultant and fifth-generation member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, notes that an endorsement from a pastor is no guarantee of securing his parishioners’ support.

“Just because the pastor endorses doesn’t mean the congregation follows,” Seawright said.

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