Phillips’ first trip to the state since launching his long-shot presidential campaign just three weeks ago — and his frosty welcome here — underscored the uphill climb the Minnesota Democrat faces across the country, but especially in Biden’s political safe port in South Carolina. He chose the Blue Jamboree, an annual showcase for national and Charleston-area Democrats, to make his first pitch to more than 200 voters in this important early voting state.
“It’s a long shot. 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 thing about staying true to our democracy, that people have the right to present their case.”
Phillips’ speech featured several tense and awkward moments, such as when he compared the current political challenge facing Biden to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016. A Biden volunteer shook his head aggressively in disagreement.
But there was also a subtle but palpable shift in the room at 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 when he talked about the one thing that unites both Biden and Phillips supporters in the room: the desire to beat Trump .
“Is it difficult for an insurgent who takes over the entire establishment and institutions to introduce himself in a state like this with a person of such extraordinary influence as someone like Jim Clyburn? Of course it is difficult,” Phillips said in an interview with POLITICO Saturday night. “But it was so much better than I ever imagined.”
As he left the stage, Phillips hugged Clyburn, his colleague from the Democratic Caucus, and a crowd gathered outside the theater doors, lining up to ask the Minnesotan questions and take group photos. Even some Biden voters wary of the outsider acknowledged they were glad he came — Phillips said he measures his success at these events not by applause but by the number of people who speak 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 invitation sent to their phones on Saturday. The invitation said if they stayed for the whole thing — and noted they may be asked to wear campaign apparel and participate in photos — they would get a $50 gift card. Phillips said he had never seen the invitation, and his campaign staff said it was not from his team after internal inquiries.
One voter, Karen Hutchinson, spent several minutes talking with Phillips afterward 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 flyer.
“But I think I’ll vote for him,” Hutchinson said, speaking of 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 speaks for the next generation, these young people,” she said.
Phillips spent his Saturday morning on randomly selected calls with small-dollar donors, then moved on to a long list of calls with local South Carolina officials. He said he plans to hire more staff in the state after the trip.
“Some had said the president’s support is a mile wide, but it’s only an inch deep. And what I’m finding is that it’s only a half mile wide and a half inch deep,” Phillips said.
For Biden’s part, there is a sense among some Democratic leaders in South Carolina that his campaign is afraid to plant a flag too firmly in the state, afraid to appear as if it is 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 someone whose presence wouldn’t make it look like they responded to Phillips. Benjamin was added to the roster at the last minute on Saturday.
Democratic Party leaders have expressed frustration for months that the Biden campaign hasn’t been more engaged in the state, even though it’s an off-year election cycle. There was hope among some that the Biden campaign and the national party would have invested more time and energy in the state, especially with its first-in-the-nation status. Democrats also want to reject the Republican hold on state and local offices.
While Phillips’ may be seeing an opening, it wasn’t apparent from the room. Clyburn, a co-chairman of the Biden campaign, touted the president’s successes and received thunderous applause when he spoke about the 2020 Biden doubters: “Well, I wasn’t listening then and I’m not listening now.”
Hours after the event, Phillips tried to have his own moment with the South Carolina political giant, upload a picture of his embrace with Clyburn.
“What a great night 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.