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COLUMBIA — Presidential primary voting is nearly a year away, but several Democrats seeking their party's nomination have waded into a special Senate election in South Carolina, a state that will play a critical role in their own nominating contest.

Piggybacking off local elections and boosting local candidates can help presidential hopefuls maintain visibility, particularly in some of the states with crucial early spots on the nominating calendar. That's been the case in South Carolina at least since last fall, when senators including Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris --  both of whom have since announced presidential bids -- visited the state to support Democrats in the 2018 midterms.

Democrat Tina Belge faces Republican state Rep. Dwight Loftis in a special election Tuesday to fill Senate District 6, where South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg canvassed with Belge over the weekend. Harris rallied her area supporters to do the same for the 28-year-old Democrat, who works as a planner for Greenville County and executive director of Keep Greenville County Beautiful.

Politico reported that Booker contributed $1,000 to Belge's campaign, and voters in the district reported receiving a robocall recorded by Booker on Belge's behalf. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar also spoke in support of Belge's candidacy at a Democratic breakfast last month.

The Senate seat, long in Republican control, was left vacant following Republican William Timmons' election to Congress. Pursuing the state Senate seat in 2016, Timmons did not face a Democratic opponent.

Loftis, 76, has served in the state House for more than 20 years and has backing from Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.

Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

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