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Biden’s South Carolina move reignites tensions with Sanders camp

President Biden’s move to make South Carolina the first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential primary has reignited old tensions between his camp and allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the man he defeated in that state in the 2020 contest. 

The fight is dredging up a proxy war within a party still wounded from the last presidential election, when debates over the relative importance of different states raged between moderates and progressives. 

The resentments came into full view on Monday, days after Biden lobbied to push the Palmetto State ahead of Iowa, North Carolina and Nevada. 

“The Biden nomination calendar contains a fundamental, dooming flaw: the replacement of Iowa with South Carolina as the first state,” former Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. 

“The change would be comical if it weren’t tragic,” Shakir wrote, sending roars through Biden World and corners of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). 

Shakir’s criticism opened up conversations about the nominating process that many Democrats had hoped were buried in past elections.  

The critique hit DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison particularly hard, who countered on Twitter that he has “zero tolerance” for anyone seeking to discount the importance of Black voters.  

“Zero tolerance- ZERO for any disrespect or dismissal of Black voters,” Harrison tweeted.  

“These voters are always pragmatic & clear-eyed. Their knees have never buckled. Their spines have been stiffened in the perpetual fight for freedom and equality for ALL of US! #RESPECT.” 

Shakir rejected those views in remarks to Politico, saying, “It’s a very insulting approach to suggest that somehow we don’t care about Black voters because we think South Carolina shouldn’t go first. Come on. Get real.” 

The nascent back-and-forth, which played out largely online and in the press, came after members of the DNC’s rules committee voted to approve Biden’s South Carolina suggestion last week. And while Shakir’s op-ed escalated the debate, it did not happen in isolation.  

Behind the scenes, progressives have been grumbling about Biden’s motivations for the new calendar.  

Many on the left believe the move was a not-so-veiled attempt to reward the state that delivered Biden a victory and offer a thank you to Harrison, the former state party chair, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement was critical to Biden winning the nomination in 2020.

“It’s purely a nod to Biden and they rejected Bernie,” said Democratic strategist Michael Starr Hopkins, who has called for more progressive candidate representation in 2024. “Biden clearly set the table [to] protect himself for a second run for president.” 

Other Democrats see the infighting as a sign of the lingering power struggle between the party’s two wings as attention shifts from the midterms to the presidential election.  

“I totally think this is a fundraising ploy,” one Democratic operative speculated over the Shakir op-ed. “We need to continue to raise money, so let’s be the anti-establishment.” 

Progressive and moderate Democrats alike have floated the idea of elevating Georgia — where voters are currently casting their ballots in one of the Senate’s most important contests — to a higher position than South Carolina. North Carolina has also been mentioned as an alternative.

Georgia was moved up to a top-five slot under the Biden-preferred plan. Georgia has been more of a swing state than South Carolina, which has been reliably GOP in statewide Senate and presidential races. 

Stacey Walker, a former Sanders endorser from Iowa, agreed with the broad criticism that his home state should not have the opening position because the party is shifting away from caucuses. But he was also critical of the choice of South Carolina.  

“It’s understandable as far as the spoils of political victories go, but it does little to nothing for the party as a whole,” said Walker, the first Black official to represent Linn County’s Board of Supervisors. “We may find ourselves constantly evaluating which state goes first, as we’ve seen the political winds change throughout the states over time.” 

Walker, like others on the left, noted that South Carolina is a Republican state in the general election for president. He and others suggested it would be better to reward a state where Democrats are competitive. 

“It would be an act of political negligence if you didn’t concentrate all of that political spending in swing states,” said Cenk Uygur, a progressive media host.   

It’s not hard to see why Biden, who won convincingly in South Carolina after losses in  

Iowa and New Hampshire, views things differently than those close to Sanders, who won both states in 2016 and New Hampshire again in 2020.  

Biden has argued that the decision to move up South Carolina is a nod to the importance of Black voters in the primary process.  

“For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process,” Biden wrote in a letter to the DNC. “We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process.” 

But progressives critical of Biden’s South Carolina position say there are other states where Black voters can have an important say, including the state with record early voting turnout. 

“Having Georgia as an early round state is a more logical and powerful way to represent African American voters,” Uygur said. “Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that the Biden team is doing this on purely selfish grounds is doing a disservice to the truth. This is political machinations dressed up as diversity.”