OPINION — It was a difference in styles and generations. In a Carolinas swing, first there was Beto O’Rourke with a town hall at a brewery in Charlotte, North Carolina — more like an informal gathering among many new friends. The next day there was Joe Biden with a large crowd at a historically black college in Rock Hill, South Carolina.
It was a day and a world apart last week, though in both cases, supporters uniformly praised a certain quality in their chosen candidate — authenticity.
Hopes for 2020 run high in these two states, and the stakes are real for both parties.
North Carolina is definitely a battleground. If you needed proof, note a Sept. 10 House special election in the 9th District, which is drawing tons of outside cash, plus election eve visits from Donald Trump and Mike Pence to prop up the Republican in a district the president won handily in 2016. Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Dan Bishop are on the ballot, but their battle is also a preview of what’s to come.
Early primary state South Carolina offers a diverse electorate that is crucial for any Democratic hopeful. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who saw her 2008 hopes dashed there when Barack Obama won decisively.
In his Charlotte stop, Beto was Beto, passionate and informed, with policy positions wrapped in conviction, in phrases the candidate admitted to me might not always be suited to a structured debate format. O’Rourke talked about the urgency of addressing climate change and the danger of a president he said embraces thugs, dictators and strong men around the world.
He answered questions about systemic racism, sharing anecdotes about Mexican American and Muslim American children in his home state shaken by rhetoric from the country’s leaders. “That is lasting,” and “changes our character and our sense of self-worth,” O’Rourke said. “This did not begin with Donald Trump,” but he “brought it out into the open and made it permissible and safe to say really hateful, evil, racist stuff.”
When he talked about immigration reform, O’Rourke referenced World War II Japanese American internment camps as well as the ship that carried Jewish asylum seekers, turned away from the U.S., doomed to return to face Hitler’s wrath. Then, showing frustration and passion, he let loose a trademark profanity that had the crowd cheering.
Since the racist massacre in his hometown of El Paso, O’Rourke has been a crusader on the issue of gun control reform. “He showed what he was made of during the shootings,” said Sarah Tamura, 55, a registered nurse from Wadesboro, North Carolina.
O’Rourke talked solemnly about the April 30 shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, not that far from his appearance, and recalled “how everyone who heard that news, wherever they were … however many guns they owned or did not own, thought of their kids or their time in college.” He endorsed the Peace Plan for a Safer America to address gun violence from the student-run March for Our Lives, whose UNC-Charlotte chapter was well represented. The candidate acknowledged representatives from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who wore T-shirts proclaiming their cause.
Tamura said she was keeping her options open, waiting to see who the best candidate is, but added she would “vote for a tree stump” rather than the current president.
Ayo Jaiyeoba, 17, was not so sure. The UNCC freshman political science major, who will be voting for the first time, is an O’Rourke supporter who said, “We need a young candidate.” Issues such as gun control and the environment are important to her, and she appreciated how O’Rourke has responded to gun violence in America. “All the current president did was tweet something.”
O’Rourke switched from English to Spanish and back as he answered questions from the crowd and reporters and stayed until everyone who wanted got a picture and a chat. Beverley Getzen, 77, a former civilian staffer for the Army who had at first been all in for Biden because of his “clear grasp of international politics,” said after O’Rourke’s town hall, “Now, I’m torn. He was so clear, so impressive.” She was thinking “a Biden/Beto ticket.”
At Clinton College in Rock Hill, Joe was Joe, as always, comfortable in the crowd that embraced all ages and races in a state that has seen its share of historical and violent division. He was the calming presence, the voice of reason. And that was something everyone in the crowd wanted. He ducked under the rope line to talk with a supporter in a wheelchair — and she beamed.
He talked issues, from climate change to foreign policy. He also leaned on his very human connection with the crowd. He started by bemoaning a Trump administration policy, now being reconsidered, to deport sick immigrant children, saying, “It’s sinful what’s happening. I would have thought that even he would not target sick kids.” And he emphasized the need for the country to change course.
The folks I talked with weren’t bothered by questions about age, citing Trump’s age. The “gaffes”? It’s part of the package — or, as Teresa Gray, 63, said, it’s not age-related, it’s “Joe-related; he’s always been himself.” The retired teacher from York, South Carolina, added, “I have confidence in him to settle us back down to normal.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia P. Roddey, 79, also a retired educator, cited Biden’s track record, as did many in the crowd. “He was courageous enough to work with a black president,” she said, something that carries a lot of weight among many older African Americans in South Carolina who recall racist violence that a 2015 Charleston church shooting sadly proved was not relegated to the past.
Many African American voters told me in 2007 and 2008 that they hesitated in their support of Obama because of fears for his family’s safety. Barack and Michelle Obama had to convince them to step out on faith, and they did, giving Obama the primary election boost he needed. Some of that good faith now extends to Biden.
Charles Patterson, 50, of Charlotte, said he appreciated Biden’s moderate approach. The retired correctional officer said he is satisfied with his own health care, and said of the Affordable Care Act, “Tweak it, don’t get rid of it.” He said Biden “believes in the rights of all, not one.” His wife, Michelle Patterson, 51, said the former vice president was “the most experienced of all candidates,” and said she is hoping for a Biden/Kamala Harris ticket, though she said she was “not happy with the stunt Harris pulled” in the first candidate debate, when she attacked Biden’s history on busing.
Biden’s “electability” argument is resonating with voters such as Lisa Mason, 56, a Charlotte fitness instructor. Mason, a registered Republican who is emblematic of suburban women the president can’t afford to alienate, said of Biden, “I think he’s genuine, and I think he can beat Trump.”
Her husband, Keith Mason, 59, a retired high school social studies teacher, repeated what he called Biden’s line of the day: “The words of a president matter.” The registered independent praised Biden’s “intelligence, dignity and graciousness” and said of Trump’s presidency, “This is not normal.”
Democratic voters have plenty of choices, as different as night and day — or Biden and Beto. But to say the two candidates were on different tracks in their recent, though certainly not last, Carolinas swing does not tell the whole story.
Crowds at both town halls who had picked their winner offered only mild criticism of their choice’s Democratic primary opponents. Most I spoke with were like Carl Gandel, 62, who attended both rallies and expects to follow all the candidates. The political junkie said that until Obama came along, he just voted. Then, he became engaged.
“So many don’t care who the nominee is,” he said of the 2020 race. The important thing is “everybody’s got to work.”
Democrats hope that as the field narrows, that’s the message its voters will remember.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.