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South Carolina has the next primary. Its electorate often splits across racial lines

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Former South Carolina state senators Vincent Sheheen and Joel Lourie host a podcast about politics and whiskey. It's called "Bourbon In The Back Room."

What bourbon exactly gets poured in the backroom?

JOEL LOURIE: (Laughter) Lots of different types.

MARTÍNEZ: Is there are brand particular?

VINCENT SHEHEEN: Everything from Old Grand Dad to Wild Turkey to...

LOURIE: Knob Creek. I'm just pulling some of it out right now. Maker's Mark is one of our favorites.

MARTÍNEZ: This was a morning interview, by the way. We called them up because the next presidential primary will be held in their state. So, Senator Sheheen, let's start with you. I mean, how would you describe the state electorate in South Carolina? What's it look like?

SHEHEEN: Conservative. We've had a lot of transplants to the state. They may have been not conservative when they left their northeastern state or their midwestern state, but when they arrive here, they become conservative. We also have a large African American population, maybe almost a third of the state, that tends to vote Democratic. So we have, you know, a electorate that votes for Republicans pretty overwhelmingly with a strong Democratic vote that's in the minority. And unfortunately, the vote is very racial. White voters, you know, more than 70 to 80% vote for Republicans. And African American voters, around 80 to 90% vote for Democrats.

MARTÍNEZ: You both are Democrats. And the Democratic National Committee last year voted to shake up the primary schedule, put South Carolina first. Senator Lourie, what does this new role mean for Democrats in the state?

LOURIE: Well, I mean, this year, I don't think, quite honestly, it means a whole heck of a lot because our nomination is a foregone conclusion. And President Biden, you know, will be our nominee. But in future years, where there's a contested primary, it makes South Carolina the place to be. I mean, if you go back and look over time, the person who wins the South Carolina primary, even before we became first in the nation, is usually the one that goes on to win the Democratic nomination.

SHEHEEN: I think an important impact on the nation of having South Carolina as a early primary state, especially in the Democratic primary, is that Democratic primary voters in South Carolina tend to be moderate to conservatives compared to what we see in some of our other states. Thus, Joe Biden did really well here. He was seen as the moderate choice in the last primary. And I think moving the South Carolina primary up to an even more prominent role will help kind of moderate the party.

MARTÍNEZ: So you both mentioned 2020. That's when Joe Biden really needed South Carolina, and the state's voters definitely delivered. How do you think opinions about the president have changed in South Carolina the past four years, if at all? Senator Sheheen, let's start with you on that.

SHEHEEN: I think South Carolina Democrats at least still view Joe Biden very favorably. He had long ties to the state, so I think he's still well-loved. I think the - perhaps the only thing that has changed is what happens with any incumbent president, which is the excitement from the first race has to be regenerated. And I think that's the challenge for the president here over the next - almost a year, nine months, is to reenergize voters not just in South Carolina but across the country.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so Donald Trump's got by Iowa with a win, got by in New Hampshire with a win. And he is clearly dissatisfied with Nikki Haley, your former governor in South Carolina, that she has decided to stay in the race. South Carolina, when that ticket comes up, do you think South Carolina will turn out for Nikki Haley, Senator Sheheen?

SHEHEEN: South Carolina is Trump country and Trump will win South Carolina. South Carolina, for the last, well, over a decade has picked the more extreme candidate in the Republican primary. And I think it's safe to assume that Donald Trump will do extremely well here. We've seen almost all of the elected officials at a high level in the Republican Party endorse Donald Trump. I think that's for two reasons. One, they're afraid of Donald Trump and think he's going to win. And the other reason is they really don't like Nikki Haley anyway, so it's easy to do it. But I think they think he's going to win, and I think he will win in the primary.

MARTÍNEZ: Senator Lourie?

LOURIE: One thing about Governor Haley, though, I mean, she is a very talented and tactical politician. And I don't know that that's a criticism or I don't know that that's praise, that's just who she is. Everything she does, there's a purpose behind it.

MARTÍNEZ: Did you both work with her when you were state senators?

LOURIE: Yes. Well, yes, we did.

(LAUGHTER)

LOURIE: It depends on what your definition is work with her.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, I know, I know. I realized it when I said it.

SHEHEEN: (Laughter).

LOURIE: Yeah. I mean, but I will tell you, I mean, in all fairness, we worked with her. I mean, Nikki Haley was one that liked to come in and criticize the legislature. For example, her first year in office, she gave out report cards. I think I was one of the Fs.

SHEHEEN: (Laughter).

LOURIE: And I remember going to the podium and bragging about how this is the first time that I get an F that my mother will be proud of me, OK?

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

LOURIE: But, you know, she'd like to beat up on the legislature. And that was sort of how she positioned herself. Did she get a lot done? Vincent, you know, you'd have to answer that question. What do you think?

SHEHEEN: Yeah, I mean, they were divisive years. I think that's part of why most of the elected officials in the state are not supporting Haley. Of course, we ran against each other for governor in 2010 in a very close race. And then she was very much in a kind of defensive posture for much of her governor's years. So it was - they were divisive years, I think is the best way to say it.

MARTÍNEZ: So considering what you two just mentioned, why would she stay in the race and possibly get embarrassed in her home state?

SHEHEEN: Well, we felt like Tim Scott was running for vice president, and we felt like Nikki Haley was running for 2028. And perhaps that's why she's staying in is to position herself for the future. I don't know.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So given, then, the Republican dominance in South Carolina, large majorities in the House, what must Democrats do to gain some - to regain some relevance in South Carolina?

SHEHEEN: Well, that's going to take a change of the national brand, frankly. The national brand is not popular in South Carolina. It's seen as out of touch with the thoughts and the values of the state. And it's very, very hard on the local level or on the state level to change that.

LOURIE: Yeah, I agree with that. I mean, I think we tend to be viewed a lot by what's happening at the national level. And I think some of the far left in our party make things a lot worse for Democrats in South Carolina. I mean, years ago, when there was this effort and this movement around to defund the police, we were like, oh, God, that's just terrible. I mean, that's the worst thing you can say in a state like - really in most states because, you know, it just doesn't sit well with people that want law and order. So once we improve ourselves on a national level, I think the same will happen here.

MARTÍNEZ: That's former South Carolina state senators Vincent Sheheen and Joel Lourie. They're hosts of "Bourbon In The Back Room," a podcast about South Carolina politics. Senators, thanks for your time.

LOURIE: Thank you very much. Take care.

SHEHEEN: Thanks, A. If you ever make it over to South Carolina, we'd love to drink a little - whatever you might like (laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: Pour me a glass.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORALLE'S "PERFECTIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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