Nov 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Newsom, Pritzker signal White House ambitions in donations to S. Carolina candidate

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks behind a podium.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at an event in Los Angeles last month. Photo: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images for Entertainment Industry Foundation

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker both recently cut checks for a candidate in this month's mayoral election in Charleston, S.C., Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The donations to Charleston candidate Clay Middleton signal White House ambitions for both governors, as South Carolina recently moved to the front of the Democratic presidential primary calendar.

  • The moves by Newsom and Pritzker are part of a larger pattern of ambitious Democrats upping their national profiles ahead of 2028 or even 2024 in the unlikely case President Biden decides not to run for re-election in the face of poor poll numbers.
  • It's also a boon for Middleton — a longtime former aide to South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn and Democratic presidential candidates — as he tries to defeat the incumbent Democratic mayor, John Tecklenburg, in the Nov. 7 election.

Driving the news: Pritzker and Newsom both donated $1,000, the maximum for local elections, to Middleton's campaign last week, his team confirmed.

  • Pritzker donated personally, while Newsom donated through his political action committee, Campaign for Democracy.
  • Newsom's group also sent out a fundraising text for Middleton this past week that raised more than $17,000, a spokesperson for Newsom told Axios.

Zoom in: Other potential presidential candidates also have taken an interest in the Charleston race.

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who hired Middleton to help lead his South Carolina team in the 2020 presidential race, endorsed Middleton earlier this year and sent out a fundraising email from his campaign email list.
  • Financial disclosures show that Booker has not donated to Middleton but his spokesperson said he has recorded robocalls.
  • Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who was in South Carolina in October for a policy event with the state party, grabbed barbecue with Middleton and endorsed him but has not donated, according to his spokesperson.

Middleton, who also served as a senior adviser to DNC Chair Jaime Harrison, told Axios he has not talked about the 2024 or 2028 presidential races with any of those Democrats.

  • "I'm just humbled to have their support in this race," he said.
  • "I get the national implications, but the real supporters I need are the voters that live in the city of Charleston," Middleton said.
  • The election is expected to go to a Nov. 21 run-off between Tecklenburg and one of the five other candidates running for the position.

The intrigue: Democrats' involvement in a 2023 South Carolina mayoral race is another instance of quiet jockeying among ambitious Democrats to succeed Biden.

  • Clyburn is backing Middleton, his former district aide and Lowcountry regional coordinator from 2003 to 2011, according to Legistorm.
  • Any Democrat with presidential ambitions will want to court Clyburn after his endorsement of Joe Biden in 2020 resuscitated his campaign and propelled him to victory.
  • Newsom, Pritzker, Booker, and Khanna all support Biden's re-election, but these moves also put them in a stronger position for 2028 or in case Biden has a change of heart this election cycle.
  • Middleton said he began meeting with Newsom's team in September, when he sat down in Washington, D.C. with Eve O'Toole, a longtime ally of Newsom who sometimes functions as his representative in D.C. O'Toole did not respond to an email requesting comment.

What they're saying: A spokesperson for Pritzker told Axios: "Gov. Pritzker believes that Clay Middleton will make a great mayor for Charleston."

  • In the fundraising text, Newsom wrote the Middleton is "running for Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, and if he can win it will give us an important foothold in a Red State."
  • In a statement, Booker told Axios that "I've known Clay for years, and I'm proud to support him. He believed in my presidential campaign, and I believe in his vision for the people of Charleston."
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