One of Sen. Bernie Sanders' key advisors during the 2016 election traveled to the early primary state of South Carolina last week to meet with potential 2020 campaign staff and discuss whether the liberal lawmaker will make another run for president, CNBC has learned.
Robert Becker, the former 2016 Sanders Iowa state director, traveled to Columbia, S.C., and conducted one-on-one meetings with some veteran members of Sanders' previous campaign for the White House, according to three people familiar with the conversations. The wide-ranging discussions included talk about putting together a team in the state if Sanders decides to enter the 2020 Democratic primary, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
It is not clear, however, whether Becker was operating in an official capacity on behalf of Sanders. Jeff Weaver, who ran Sanders' 2016 campaign, told CNBC that Becker "doesn't work for the campaign because there is no campaign" and that there have been no discussions about bringing him into a potential 2020 campaign.
"I get stories everyday of people trying to run around and talk to people to see if they want to work for Bernie.This is going on all over the place," Weaver said. "It doesn't surprise me there are former employees of Bernie who may also be supportive of Bernie, discussing the idea of him making another run."
Becker did not return repeated requests for comment.
While the first contests of the 2020 election cycle won't happen for more than a year, potential Democratic candidates are already jockeying for position in key states by gauging support among strategists, donors and potential campaign staff. South Carolina – which is slated to hold its primary in February 2020 after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada – will be crucial in helping the party sort out its eventual nominee to take on President Donald Trump.
The meetings came at a time when Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, is actively considering another run for president. The leaders of his last campaign are looking to expand their operation after falling to the eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton four years ago. Clinton crushed Sanders in South Carolina, 73 percent to 26 percent, on her way to sweeping the southern states during primary season.
In an interview with CNBC last month, Weaver said a potential new Sanders campaign should have "a more robust political department and even more field staffers" working in states.
"We would need people who can reach out to local grassroots leaders and local elected party officials," he said at the time. Weaver also noted that his team have not opened any field offices at this stage.
Becker appeared to be making moves in this direction with his visit to South Carolina. According to people who spoke with Becker, he seemed to be on unofficial duties for the Sanders team as he gauged interest in putting a team together in South Carolina. One of the people who spoke with him privately warned that the Sanders team will have to improve its state wide operation if they want to win over voters.
"It seemed like he was working with the Bernie team, but unofficially," this person, a former Sanders South Carolina campaign official, told CNBC on the condition of anonymity. "He was definitely gauging interest of people who may want to rejoin the campaign. They can't do do the same thing they did last time if they want a chance in South Carolina."
This person, who is unlikely to work with Sanders this time around, also noted that other 2020 hopefuls have been reaching out to measure interest in joining their organizations. The person would not say which campaigns have called due to ongoing and private negotiations.
Weaver, the Sanders 2016 campaign manager, conceded that the senator would have to start visiting the state relatively soon and boost his campaign staff in South Carolina if he wants to pull off a victory in what's likely to be a competitive and loaded primary field.
"We would start much earlier then last time. We started relatively late there. If you are running early and have more time, you will be able to build a campaign infrastructure there." Weaver said. A former senior South Carolina campaign official said that Sanders made his way into the state in summer 2015. He announced his candidacy for presidency in April of that year.
During this year's congressional midterm campaign, Sanders made a surprise trip to South Carolina for a rally in support of "Medicare for All." Just two weeks before the elections, Sanders called for an extension to the age limit of Medicare and drew a crowd of over 900 people to the event.
South Carolina is a reliably conservative state, where Republican presidential candidates tend to win by double-digit margins over their Democratic rivals. Trump defeated Clinton by more than 14 percentage points two years ago. But South Carolina is the first southern state on the primary schedule, and a key gauge of potential black voters' support for candidates. Clinton won more than 80 percent of South Carolina's black vote in her 2016 primary battle with Sanders.
Democratic leaders in the state are eager to get the race going.
"The folks here are excited. They are ready and they are looking forward to see all the candidates come through South Carolina," Trav Robertson, the state party chair, told CNBC in an interview. "What we are looking for from our candidate in this state is two things. One is to help our local candidates get elected and the other is for someone who has a clear opportunity to beat Donald Trump."
A spokesman for Sanders' office in Washington, D.C., did not return a request for comment.
Sanders isn't the only potential Democratic presidential candidate gearing up for the primary season.
Strategists close to former Vice President Joe Biden, who has publicly and privately been saying he's yet to decide on whether he will take part in the next presidential election, have been reaching out to potential field staff in the first caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks. A spokesman for Biden declined to comment.
Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke and his inner circle have had conversations with a variety of party leaders, including Obama, who spoke to the three term congressman after he just lost to Ted Cruz in a battle for his Senate seat. His associates have also heard from members of Obama's New Hampshire and Iowa campaigns.
While South Carolina may be a major hurdle for Sanders to climb, he continues to do well in recent polls of possible candidates, including a CNN survey that saw him garner 14 percent and rank second behind Biden. In a poll released on Saturday asking voters in Iowa who they favor as their nominee, Biden and Sanders were in the lead again.