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In S.C., a record of picking winners with broad appeal

FLORENCE, S.C. - When Republican Jeb Bush's black Suburban pulled up, the excited crowd packed into the Wholly Smokin' barbecue joint could see him coming, his 6-foot-4 frame poking above the camera scrum.

FLORENCE, S.C. - When Republican Jeb Bush's black Suburban pulled up, the excited crowd packed into the Wholly Smokin' barbecue joint could see him coming, his 6-foot-4 frame poking above the camera scrum.

"What we need is quiet, strong leadership," Bush told about 150 people one afternoon last week, after shaking hands around the room and posing for dozens of cellphone pictures. "It's not about the big personalities on the stage; it's about a servant leader who fixes the big things."

The former Florida governor had picked the right state to state his case.

South Carolina's primary often serves as a fire wall for the GOP establishment when Iowa or New Hampshire picks an insurgent candidate. It may seem to the traditional leadership that the Republican electorate is going mad, giving a large slice of its support to two candidates - Donald Trump and Ben Carson - who stand outside the political system and want to smash it. But to win South Carolina, home of the first presidential vote in the South, a candidate has to have broad appeal.

Since 1980, South Carolina voters have a near-perfect record of picking the Republican Party's eventual nominee. (The one blemish: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried the state in 2012 and was driven from the race soon after.)

The state is a microcosm of the national GOP electorate. There are God-guns-and-guts conservatives in the hill country upstate, as well as business-oriented types in places like Greenville, thriving with foreign investment from firms such as BMW. In the Lowcountry, along the southern coast of South Carolina, Republicans tend to be fiscal conservatives and social-issue moderates - with sportsmen interested in environmental protection.

Finally, the military has major bases in the state, and 400,000 service retirees have settled here.

"We have every core constituency in the party, and we tend to choose candidates who can appeal to all the constituencies," said state GOP Chairman Matt Moore.

To its advocates, the diversity of conservatives makes South Carolina more representative than Iowa, with its large evangelical vote that favors social-conservative candidates, or New Hampshire, where get-off-my-back libertarians can dominate.

In 2012, exit polls found a balanced GOP primary electorate in South Carolina: 36 percent identified themselves as "very conservative," while 32 percent said they were only "somewhat" conservative, and 32 percent said they were moderate or liberal.

"A lot of Republicans here are concerned about electability," Moore said. "It's not enough to cast a protest vote, and it's not enough to show you're angry at Washington. They want to elect a president."

Ken Wezl of Florence, waiting in the restaurant to hear from Bush, thinks Bush would be "a good president, but I worry that his brother would hurt him in the fall."

He also likes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "People are falling toward Rubio because the way he articulates his message and how he looks," said Wezl, 67, a retired owner of a construction firm. "You can picture him up there against the Democrats; he's presidential." Yet he is concerned that the 43-year-old first-term senator might not have enough experience, leading to "another Obama."

His wife, Karen, wants to vote for Jeb Bush. "There's something about him, though; I'm not sold on him yet," said Karen Wezl, 68. "Sometimes I don't think he wants it."

In Spartanburg, about an hour south of the North Carolina line, Ron Pockette was at the Beacon Drive-In checking out Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He likes that Kasich is blunt and admires his work toward a balanced budget as a House leader in the 1990s.

"He has lots of experience in Washington and in running a state, and he sounds strong, like he'll push his ideas forward," said Pockette, 58, a retired nurse and Navy veteran. "He has a proven track record."

He won't vote for Trump, though he said the mouthy businessman keeps him entertained. "I like to hear him go off, but the guy can't carry the load," Pockette said.

Right now, Trump is leading in South Carolina with 25 percent support, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls in the state. Carson is running second, with 22 percent; 11 percent support Rubio and 7.5 percent, Bush.

Jim Drury was at a Trump town hall in Spartanburg last week. "We do need to make America great again," said Drury, 48, a retired firefighter from Union, S.C., who grew up in York, Pa., and relocated after an Air Force career.

"We are losing everything. We're losing the war on terrorism, we're losing our jobs," he said. And with illegal immigration out of control, Drury said, "we're losing the identity of this country."

Some strategists are not so sanguine about South Carolina regaining its king-making mojo, noting that the political environment is much more chaotic than when political giants with strong organizations ruled the state GOP - people like former Gov. Carroll Campbell and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

"Go back to 1988; Campbell had the state wired for George H.W. Bush," said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist in Washington with deep South Carolina roots and experience. The same thing happened four years later. The incumbent president, Bush, lost to Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire. South Carolina snuffed that insurgency.

The tea party movement, grip of right-wing talk radio, and rise of social media have flattened out politics in the state as elsewhere, weakening the establishment, Haynes said.

"It used to be that all the factions reported up the ladder," he said. "Now they report to themselves. . . . The national Republican Party is more fractured, and South Carolina is the same way."

Candidates win the state "by piecing together their own coalition," Haynes said. "You've got to go out and work for it, put it together piece by piece."