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.