Horry County Democrats want more people like Austin Nichols.
The Coastal Carolina University sophomore is young and politically minded. He’s even trying to launch a chapter of College Democrats on the campus, which already has a College Republicans organization.
“They’re not very large either, but they are active on campus,” Nichols said. “It would just be great to have College Democrats, equal representation.”
It may be more accurate to say area Democrats need more people like Nichols.
Although both Republicans and Democrats have long lamented the lack of politically involved youth, the challenge is particularly pressing for local and state Democrats, who already face the uphill struggle of winning elections in bright red South Carolina.
“That’s how you grow,” said Nancy Anderson, secretary of the Horry County Democratic Party. “You attract younger people.”
Finding ways to engage and mobilize young Democrats was one of the one of the topics discussed at this weekend’s Spratt Issues Conference, the fourth annual gathering of Palmetto State Dems.
This is the first time Myrtle Beach has hosted the event. Named after former Congressman John Spratt, this year’s conference included speeches from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.
Anderson said the event continues to grow — there were more than 275 attendees this year — but as she surveyed the audience at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, she noticed a familiar sight.
“If you looked around at this crowd, you’ll see there are many people who are gray-haired and elderly,” she said. “That’s not just Horry County, but across the state.”
Anderson said the party is trying to attract younger supporters. In both the state and local organizations, there’s an officer under the age of 30 who’s tasked with mobilizing that demographic.
The Horry County officer, Anderson said, has been recruiting budding professionals and college students.
Enter the push for College Democrats at Coastal.
“We’ve been desperately trying to get Coastal to start a chapter,” she said.
If the campus ever gets an active group, Anderson is optimistic about its potential. Many Coastal students come from states in the Northeast.
“We know that the Northeast is not as red,” she said. “Will some of those students choose to stay in sunny, warm Horry County or South Carolina somewhere? And if they do, will they bring those values here? I don’t know.”
On Saturday, one of the conference’s breakout sessions was a panel discussion about energizing young Democrats. During the conversation, members from the audience talked about the challenge of finding younger supporters.
“I was head of the Obama campaign in 2012 in Horry County,” said Richard Trout. “One of our major problems was trying to get young people to vote. And we tried down at Coastal Carolina in particular, but we could not get anybody really involved. ... We finally got three students to come out and they came twice. Then they left. And I called them back and they said, ‘Oh, we were there for extra credit.’”
Virginia Horne, a sophomore at the University of South Carolina and a member of the College Democrats there, said supporting this party in a red state can be a lonely task. She recalled people shouting “Nobama” at her when she was politically active in middle school.
“It’s very hard to be a young Democrat in South Carolina in general,” she said. “It’s just not as accepted in today’s culture.”
The group talked about the need to promote the successes of Democratic leaders as well as focusing on issues that resonate with younger voters.
“I’m probably one of the more passionate people of my age group,” said Bria Burke-Koskela, president of Clemson University’s College Democrats. “But I do believe that social issues like marriage equality or the basic rights to be able to be paid the same amount as my male counterparts — stuff like that will get young people passionate.”
One of the panelists was Terrence Culbreath, the 32-year-old mayor of Johnston, S.C.. He said Democrats need to do a better job of mentoring young leaders.
“I pretty much begged the Democratic Party to have me at this conference,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m the youngest mayor in the state and you’re telling me I’m not going to be there. Why am I not there?’ ... Showcase the young people we have.”
For Nichols, the Coastal Carolina student, the event was inspiring. He said he talked with College Democrats from schools across the state, heard some passionate speakers and he plans to build off that momentum. He’s assembled just a small group of about 10 students interested in building a College Democrats chapter, but he’s optimistic.
“Sometimes it may be hard at our university to do certain things like that,” he said. “But ... it’s a great opportunity.”