2020 elections

Biden wins crucial Jim Clyburn endorsement ahead of South Carolina primary

Clyburn, whose endorsement comes just days before the state’s Saturday primary, is the highest ranking African American in Congress.

Rep. James Clyburn, the godfather of South Carolina Democratic politics, swung his support to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign Wednesday, giving the former vice president a crucial seal of approval among black voters.

“I've been saying to the media, I've known for a long time who I'm going to vote for. But I had not decided — well, not to share it with the public,” the House Majority Whip said at a news conference in North Charleston. “But I want the public to know that I'm voting for Joe Biden. South Carolina should be voting for Joe Biden.”

Clyburn’s decision, which POLITICO reported Sunday was in the offing, comes at a critical time for Biden’s campaign as he reeled from three losses to Bernie Sanders and others in the field and seeks a reset in South Carolina, which has long been viewed as his firewall. It lands just days before the state’s primary, which is set for Saturday, and in a tweet announcing his endorsement Clyburn acknowledged the significance of this weekend’s election.

“In South Carolina, we choose presidents,” he wrote. “I’m calling on you to stand with @JoeBiden.”

Clyburn, the highest ranking African American in Congress, has long been close with Biden and has been open about his affinity for the former vice president during the Democratic primary.

But Biden started to see his support erode in South Carolina as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders surged on the heels of strong performances in the first three contests of the year. And lawmakers like Clyburn started to grow increasingly nervous that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, would be a drag on the ticket and turn off moderate whites as well as African-American voters, who could account for two-thirds of the ballots cast in Saturday’s primary.

“I do believe it will be an extra burden for us to have to carry. This is South Carolina, and South Carolinians are pretty leery about that title ‘socialist,‘” Clyburn said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

Clyburn’s sentiment is widely shared by others in the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members have been more likely to endorse Biden — the two-term vice president to the nation’s first black president — than any other candidate in the race.

A video rolled out by the Biden campaign to tout Clyburn's endorsement nodded to that dynamic. The spot leans heavily on b-roll featuring Biden and Obama, and notes that the Palmetto State "launched" both he and Bill Clinton into the White House when they ran for president. "And now," Clyburn says in the clip, "we are going to launch Joe Biden into the White House."

Concern about Sanders among lawmakers on the ground in South Carolina is “palpable,” according to one member of the black caucus who did not want to publicly criticize Sanders, the current Democratic frontrunner.

Black lawmakers who have endorsed different candidates have attended many of the same events this week in South Carolina and have grown increasingly concerned about Sanders, the black caucus member said. But they’re not ready to publicly speak out against the Vermont senator until Super Tuesday to see if any challengers to Sanders are viable, the black caucus member said.

On Wednesday morning, Clyburn said that he’d made the decision to publicly endorse Biden after an elderly constituent implored him to speak out at the funeral of his accountant last week.

“‘I've been waiting to hear from you. I need to hear from you. This community wants to hear from you,’” Clyburn said the constituent told him. “I decided then and there that I would not stay silent.”

In an interview on CNN on Wednesday, however, Clyburn also revealed that he'd promised "television sponsors or partners with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute" — co-hosts of the previous night's primary debate — that he would wait to make his public endorsement until after the debate.

"I was asked way back, when the decision was made not to go out so early making my endorsements or undercutting the primary itself, because it might discourage participation. So I tried not to get out in front of that," he told Wolf Blitzer, acknowledging that his backing could have given Biden a much-needed boost earlier.

Clyburn also underscored in his interview with CNN that he factored in the down-ballot implications of candidates in his endorsement decision and reiterated that he believed Sanders could put critical seats in statehouses and Congress in jeopardy.

But in his endorsement, which moved Biden to tears, the congressman also invoked his late wife Emily who died last fall, saying that there was no leader she loved more than Biden, whom he'd gotten to know decades earlier through his work during the civil rights movement.

"I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us," Clyburn said.

With Biden standing at his side, Clyburn echoed the former vice president’s frequent assertions that the country is at an "inflection point."

The South Carolina congressman said that his fear of the future was greater now than it had been during the civil rights movement, remarking when he was jailed for his activism, “I wondered whether or not we were doing the right thing, — but I was never fearful of the future. As I stand before you today, I am fearful for the future of this country.”

He argued: “We don't need to make this country great again. This country is great. That's not what our challenge is.”

”Our challenge is making the greatness of this country accessible and affordable for all,” he continued, adding that “nobody with whom I've ever worked in public life is any more committed to that motto, that pledge that I have to my constituents, than Joe Biden.”

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.