Phillips’ first trip to the state since launching his longshot presidential campaign just three weeks ago — and his frosty welcome here — underscored the uphill climb facing the Minnesota Democrat across the country, but especially in Biden’s political safe haven of South Carolina. He chose the Blue Jamboree, an annual showcase of national and Charleston-area Democrats, to make his first pitch to more than 200 voters in this key early voting state.
“It’s a longshot. This is Biden country,” said Bre Spaulding, a South Carolina-based political consultant, referring to Phillips’ campaign. “But we also understand the process, and that’s the good part about being true to our democracy is people have the right to make their case.”
Phillips’ speech featured several tense and awkward moments, like when he compared the current political challenge facing Biden to that of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016. A Biden volunteer shook her head aggressively in disagreement.
But there was also a subtle but palpable shift in the room by the end of his remarks. He never received the thunderous applause garnered by Biden surrogates — South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn and Steve Benjamin, White House director of public engagement and former Columbia mayor — but the crowd was engaged as he talked about the one thing uniting both Biden and Phillips supporters in the room: The desire to beat Trump.
“Is it hard for an insurgent taking on the entire establishment and institutions to introduce him or herself in a state like this, with a person of such extraordinary influence as a person like Jim Clyburn? Of course it’s hard,” Phillips said in an interview with POLITICO Saturday evening. “But it was so much better than I ever imagined.”
Walking off the stage, Phillips hugged Clyburn, his Democratic Caucus colleague, and a crowd gathered outside the theater doors, lining up to ask the Minnesotan questions and to snap group photos. Even some Biden voters who were wary of the outsider acknowledged that they were glad he came — Phillips said he measures his success at these events not by the clapping, but by the number of people who talk to him afterwards.
Some Phillips’ supporters wore his blue campaign t-shirts or hats, while a few people said they showed up because they received a mysterious digital invite sent to their phones on Saturday. The invite said if they stayed for the entirety — noting that they may be asked to wear campaign attire and participate in photos — they would get a $50 giftcard. Phillips said he’d never seen the invite, and his campaign staff said it wasn’t from his team after internal inquiries.
One voter, Karen Hutchinson, spent several minutes talking to Phillips afterwards and posed for a photo with him. Hutchinson was a Biden voter in 2020, and said she had never heard Phillips’ name before but came because she received the flier.
“But I think I’m going to vote for him,” Hutchinson said, speaking about her financial concerns. She said that even when she has extra money to spare, she often has to help her son and his family.
“He’s speaking for the next generation, these young people,” she said.
Phillips spent his Saturday morning on randomly selected calls with small-dollar donors, and then moved to a long list of calls with local South Carolina officials. He said he’s planning to hire more staff in the state after the trip.
“Some had said that the president’s support is a mile wide but it’s only an inch deep. And what I’m discovering is it’s only a half-mile wide and a half-inch deep,” Phillips said.
For Biden’s part, there’s a sense among some South Carolina Democratic leaders that his campaign is apprehensive about planting a flag too firmly in the state, fearful of appearing as if it’s taking Phillips’ campaign seriously. Clyburn was a safe choice to speak on behalf of Biden: A big enough name that no one could complain that the Biden campaign wasn’t well represented, and one whose presence would not make it appear as if they were reacting to Phillips. Benjamin was added to the schedule last-minute on Saturday.
Democratic Party leaders have expressed frustration for months that the Biden campaign has not been more engaged in the state, even though it is an off-year election cycle. There was a hope among some that the Biden campaign and national party would have invested more time and energy into the state, particularly with its first-in-the-nation status. Democrats also want to chip away at the Republican hold on state and local offices.
While Phillips’ may see an opening, it wasn’t obvious from the room. Clyburn, a Biden campaign co-chair, touted the president’s successes, and received booming applause when he talked about the Biden doubters in 2020: “Well I didn’t listen then, and I’m not listening now.”
Hours after the event, Phillips tried to have his own moment with the South Carolina political giant, posting a picture of his embrace with Clyburn.
“What a great evening at the Charleston Blue Jam,” Phillips said in a post on X. “A cool welcome, a VERY warm send-off, and a great moment with my colleague and lion of Congress, @RepJamesClyburn.”
Lauren Egan contributed to this report.