South Carolina Democrats Shaking Cup in D.C.

Posted March 6, 2007 at 6:43pm

An A-list of Democratic superstars is slated to appear at a Washington, D.C., hotel tonight for a South Carolina Democratic Party fundraiser expected to generate more than one-third of the party’s tab for its 2008 presidential primary.

“This is the time to raise money,” said Joe Erwin, the South Carolina Democratic chairman. “We are looking to raise about $150,000, which exceeds by a large amount any event held outside of South Carolina.”

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) and at least three Democratic presidential hopefuls — Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — are expected to be on hand at tonight’s 2008 South Carolina Presidential Primary Kick-Off Reception at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.

Planners say the event will raise money for the party’s share of the Palmetto State’s recently rescheduled 2008 presidential primary — and more. In 2004, the state held its primary in early February. But after extensive lobbying by South Carolina Democrats earlier this year to move up the state’s primary date — to keep pace with state Republicans — the Democratic National Committee handed its state affiliate a Jan. 29 primary date. That’s just days before South Carolina Republicans vote and makes the Palmetto State the fourth winnowing-down contest in the Democratic presidential nominating process, behind Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“When we have had primaries, we have typically done it early,” said Carol Fowler, vice chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “In 2004, the DNC made it possible to [move the date] a little earlier because in 2000 the Republicans had gone very early.”

Fowler added: “At our pleading, the DNC moved [the primary date this year] because we were trying to keep up with South Carolina Republicans.”

Unlike the other 48 states, the two political parties in South Carolina and Utah are required for presidential primaries to corral their own volunteers and pay municipalities and precincts for the use of voting equipment. But unlike Utah, the state government in South Carolina has not agreed to set aside any money to pay the costs for next year’s primary.

But the parties couldn’t be happier. Along with paying their own way, Republicans and Democrats in South Carolina also are able to determine the dates of their primaries, granting them rare flexibility to fluctuate their primary dates without involving the state Legislature.

“Up until about 1980, political parties in South Carolina put on all the primaries for sheriff, Senate and all of that,” Fowler said. “About 1980, the state took over the funding, control and operation of those other primaries, but the legislation specifically excluded presidential primaries — mainly because of the cost factor.

“The state didn’t want to pay all that money to put on a presidential election and frankly the parties have benefited from not having state control over them,” Fowler continued. “Almost every other state in the union that has a primary for president, the state controls the date of the primary.”

Erwin has told his staff that $350,000 should suffice for equipment rental, poll workers and other related costs for the 2008 presidential primary. In 2004, he said the total costs amounted to about $300,000, a fundraising total that the committee exceeded by more than a factor of two.

With the increased significance associated with the state’s even-earlier 2008 primary, Erwin has set the bar even higher.

In 2004 “I had as a goal to raise $750,000 and we actually raised about $772,000,” Erwin said. “I think we spent for hard costs less than $300,000.”

He continued: “I’ve told my committee that we should prepare for hard costs of $350,000 and I have a goal to raise to raise $1 million between now and the primary date.”

Anything the state Democrats raise that they don’t spend on the presidential primary, the party will be able to bank.

For the state parties, another advantage of keeping primaries under their control is the value of voter information in the open market. With an already crowded field of presidential candidates, South Carolina Democrats expect to raise significant cash for their 2008 primary by hawking their voter logs.

“It’s the only way [the candidates] can get the names of those who voted in 2004,” Fowler said. “They’re not state record because we chose not to give them to the state.”

Charles Bierbauer, a former national political reporter who now heads up the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, said the push by state Democrats to move up the primary date to Jan. 29 should allow party leaders to not only make good on fundraising predictions by raising gobs of money all over the country, but also make the party’s message heard in a state in which 58 percent of voters picked President Bush over Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

“South Carolina is in a unique situation,” Bierbauer said. “If the state was way back in the pack and [Erwin] said, ‘Hey, I need half a million dollars for a primary,’ you could see people saying ‘Why? ‘It’ll be over by the time it gets to us.’”

“But when you’re [an early primary], you can make a pretty strong case that says if you want to be heard, this is all it will cost us,” Bierbauer added. “The problem [Erwin] has is that this is a red state, he’s in a blue party and he’s looking for green money — he’s got to convince people that the biggest impact South Carolina Democrats will have will be in the primary.”