COLUMBIA, S.C. — Two years after a tough loss in South Carolina's Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders returned Saturday to the state where he said his progressive message is resonating more strongly than before.
In an interview with The Associated Press following a rally attended by roughly 1,000 supporters, Sanders said, "The day is going to come, sooner than people believe, that South Carolina is going to become a progressive state."
"We have helped transform political consciousness in this country," the Vermont independent said.
Sanders' trip to the home of this first-in-the-South presidential primary came as part of a swing through several other states with early positions on the primary calendar. Next up was Iowa. A visit to Nevada was planned for next week.
The South Carolina trip differed from many of Sanders' other stops, where he's stumping with congressional candidates. None of them campaigned with him in South Carolina, with some young Democratic leaders in the state eschewing his trip as a self-serving exercise.
Still, Sanders received thunderous applause from his crowd of supporters.
"So there are progressives in South Carolina! I was told that nobody would come out to a meeting like this," Sanders said. "Thank you all very much for being here."
The trip was billed as a "Medicare for All" rally at the behest of Our Revolution, an offshoot of Sanders' 2016 presidential effort. The event came on the heels of visits by potential 2020 hopefuls Cory Booker and Kamala Harris , both of whom stumped with multiple Democratic candidates during several days in the state accustomed to hosting candidates testing out their messaging and building activist and donor relationships ahead of a national run.
News of Sanders' trip was met with a cool welcome from some Democrats, who characterized it as a distraction and portrayed Sanders' left-leaning message as too liberal for the conservative state. Sanders finished a distant second to Hillary Clinton in South Carolina's 2016 Democratic presidential primary, with only 26 percent of votes cast.
In a digital ad , Republican Gov. Henry McMaster pointed out that his opponent, state Rep. James Smith, boasted being endorsed by Our Revolution South Carolina. Smith's campaign distanced itself from Sanders, saying they "welcome the support" of voters of all persuasions but wouldn't campaign with the senator and didn't support his health care ideas. Smith's lieutenant governor running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, attended Our Revolution meetings on Friday.
Sanders told AP he wasn't concerned about Smith's stance, saying he understood the intricacies of a Democratic statewide campaign here.
"Our Revolution doesn't have a litmus test," Sanders told AP. "South Carolina is not California."
State Rep. Justin Bamberg, one of Sanders' biggest South Carolina backers and a 2016 national surrogate, said the trip was more about continuing to push some of the senator's top issues, such as increasing the minimum wage, than framing a presidential bid.
Ahead of Saturday's rally, Bamberg told AP it is imperative for Democrats to broaden the party's reach.
"If Democrats are going to start winning more, particularly in places where Democrats make up the minority, we've got to start being more welcoming," Bamberg said. "We cannot be a part of that Democrat 'elitists.' That, 'Oh, you're not Democrat enough,' or 'We don't agree with what you say.' Young people ain't trying to hear that nonsense."
Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who introduced Sanders on stage, took on the critics directly, saying that Sanders' didn't need a candidate invitation to bring his message to South Carolina.
"We are not here for any particular candidate, baby, we're here for you," Turner said. "It's not just about standing on stages with folks who want to get elected to office. ... So South Carolina, I am here to declare that we are here because you are here. All the folks talking trash ain't going do nothing for the people."