Party’s Black caucus chair launches bid to lead SC Democrats after election struggles

The leader of the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Black Caucus is making a run for the state party chairmanship, sparking a potential challenge with the current state party leader who has been at the helm since 2017.

Brandon Upson, who has said the party needs to do more to support Black female candidates, says South Carolina Democrats need to rebuild a grassroots infrastructure to improve their chances of winning in the future.

The state party has been under criticism from some supporters since Democratic membership shrank in the State House to 36 seats and the party’s nominee for governor, Joe Cunningham,lost by nearly 18 points in the 2022 election.

Upson, 37, also points at how Democratic incumbents have lost over the last several years, including in elections for school boards and the state Senate.

“When an organization is losing, when an organization is shrinking, when an organization is raising less and less money, how can that organization be in a position to win again?” Upson told The State.

Upson’s announcement comes the same day the Democratic National Committee is slated to vote on whether to make South Carolina the first in the nation Democratic presidential primary, starting with the 2024 election.

Current Chairman Trav Robertson, an Anderson native who lives in Columbia and was elected to the position in 2017, says he has yet to decide whether he will run for another two-year term, and will make his decision after the DNC’s meeting in Philadelphia.

Reacting to Upson’s bid, Robertson called him a “talented individual with a bright future.”

“He will run a spirited campaign,” Robertson said. “However, I don’t think Democrats are going to elect someone who has actively campaigned against Democrats. Someone who has been paid by Republicans to defeat Democrats. We look forward to talking about his past campaign employment, business dealings and his business associates in the future.”

Upson, who is originally from Aiken County, but lives in York County, was at the State House earlier this week meeting with “key allies” about a run for the chairmanship. He was seen in the Senate antechamber whipping support.

His slate of leadership candidates includes Mary Geren of Anderson County to run for the first vice chair, Melina Rodelo of Oconee County running for the second vice chair and Erica Sampson of Charleston County running for the third vice chair.

Upson says his slate, named SC Forward Together, will tour the state, starting with an event Saturday in Charleston at the International Longshoreman’s Association Hall. Other stops over the next week include Aiken, Anderson, Georgetown, Jasper, Marion, Georgetown, Richland and York counties as they try to drum up support ahead of this spring’s state party convention.

Upson, who had been mulling for weeks a bid against Robertson, ultimately decided to run after state Sen. Mia McLeod, who sought a long shot bid for governor, left the party last month saying it did not want to promote her candidacy.

McLeod’s exit further exposed tension over who should lead the party going forward.

Questions have been raised over Upson’s involvement with McLeod and her campaign for governor.

Upson and other members of the party’s Black caucus appeared on McLeod’s expense report during her campaign, which included a line for $900 for a 100,000-name email list for fundraising that was sold by Upson.

McLeod is supportive of Upson’s bid for party chair, Upson has said.

Upson told The State McLeod could return to the party if structural changes were made.

South Carolina Democrats haven’t won statewide office since 2006, but haven’t won the governor’s race since 1998 with Jim Hodges.

Upson said his bid doesn’t mean the party is “divided or in disarray.”

“It shows that we have a bench of leaders who are willing to step up and lead, and President (Joe) Biden explicitly said he wants South Carolina to be first in the nation to elevate Black voices,” Upson said. “And I’m saying let’s elevate Black voices and let’s elevate Black leadership.”

Upson said the party needs to focus rebuilding its grassroots efforts. The party, because of a lack of resources, did not have a coordinated campaign to encourage voters to go to the polls in November’s election, Upson said.

“In our party, we need to get back to the grassroots and create that grassroots infrastructure so that we can start building our foundation, building our bench of candidates, building our new donor network and then start winning local races, and go from there,” Upson said. “I believe if we don’t have the infrastructure to win a city council race, how are we going to win a gubernatorial race?”