South Carolina Republicans need to get their mojo back this week.
If they dont, Florida Republicans, hosting this weeks GOP convention, could steal South Carolinas status as the indispensable Southern state for future Republican presidential candidates.
Palmetto State Republicans, many headed to Tampa today for their once-every-four-years national convention, have bragged for decades that South Carolina picks presidents.
However, that proud claim was shredded in January, when S.C. Republican primary voters rejected GOP nominee Mitt Romney in favor of upstart Newt Gingrich. It was the first time since the S.C. primary started in 1980 that the states GOP faithful have failed to endorse their partys eventual nominee.
Now, South Carolinas status as a bellwether for Republicans nationwide is being called into question, particularly by Florida Republicans who say their state where former Massachusetts Gov. Romney won this year, restarting his path to the GOP nomination after his S.C. loss is a better barometer to use when judging winning Republican candidates.
Will South Carolina remain the state that Republicans nationwide look to in future presidential cycles as the place where GOP candidates claims of electability and true GOP chops are tested? Will the Palmetto State remain the firewall for GOP establishment candidates, the state where despite propelling anti-establishment candidate Ronald Reagan to the Republican nomination in 1980 the candidacies of GOP insurgents come to die?
The early reviews are mixed.
Some S.C. Republicans say the states political role is in flux, its conservative and Tea Party-influenced voters no longer aligned with those in other states as they push the state GOP more and more to the right, and out of the Republican mainstream.
They say former House Speaker Gingrichs January primary win in South Carolina was a fluke.
We arent moderate
Dave Woodard, a Republican pollster and Clemson University political scientist, sees South Carolina becoming an outlier because we arent moderate.
Were losing ground to states like Florida that did choose Romney, Woodard said.
South Carolina has always been more conservative than even the other conservative Southern states, Woodard added. But the national GOP is running more moderate candidates. (John) McCain was a moderate (in the 2008 primary) and so is Romney. So we stick out because were not moderate. We prefer the most conservative candidate.
Woodard says the fluke may have not have been Gingrich but McCain, who won the S.C. primary four years ago.
Woodard chalks moderate McCains 2008 win to his S.C. primary loss in 2000. That loss gave McCain insight into the state and a head start when he headed back for the states 2008 GOP primary, where he narrowly defeated former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a populist conservative.
The Tea Party also is affecting S.C. Republican voting.
According to polling before and after the January S.C. primary, South Carolinas strong Tea Party groups overwhelmingly favored Gingrich.
An unusual cycle?
Others are not convinced that South Carolina is losing its status as a GOP bellwether.
They say the state went for Gingrich this year, instead of GOP nominee Romney, because of a strange election cycle, unlikely to be seen again.
So our batting average has gone down from 1,000, said Walt Whetsell, a veteran GOP strategist who was a consultant to Texas Gov. Rick Perrys failed S.C. primary bid. I dont think its a reflection of something bigger going on.
Instead, Whetsell and like-minded Republicans point to two factors that they say led to an odd election cycle this year that is unlikely to be seen again:
• Frustrated S.C. voters fed up with a wilting economy and one of the nations highest jobless rates, the likes of which the state had not experienced since the Great Depression found an ally in the fiery Gingrich. In perfectly timed national debates just days before the S.C. primary, the former House speaker railed against the policies of President Barack Obama and chided other Republican candidates for unworkable solutions that lacked sweep and scope. By comparison, Romney seemed too calm.
There was angst, frustration and some might even say anger among voters, and (Gingrich) was very successful in capturing that and using it to his advantage, particularly in that last week leading up to the primary, Whetsell said.
• Romney, who lost badly in South Carolinas 2008 GOP primary, was gun-shy about the state this time around, choosing not to compete hard in the state and, instead, relying on a strategy that minimized the importance of the Palmetto State.
South Carolina was never a must-win state on Romneys screen, Whetsell said. They didnt run the aggressive campaign here.
The result? Few South Carolinians got to know Romney as well as Gingrich and the other candidates, who crisscrossed the state in the days leading up to the primary.
Wait and see
Ultimately, a few more election cycles will have to pass before anyone knows if the S.C. GOP has lost its Republican presidential kingmaker status.
Well have to wait and see if 2012 was an aberration or a gestalt shift, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster.
Florida Republicans are watching with interest.
Increasingly, they are making the case that their state is the new bellwether for Republican sentiment in the South.
The Florida Republican Party broke national rules last year, pushing its early 2012 primary ahead of South Carolinas. Florida party officials said the move was not meant to rob South Carolina or other early voting states of their coveted spots in the primary process but to give Florida, which has played a key role in recent general elections, a more prominent role in the process.
The S.C. Republican Party fought back, also breaking national rules and pushing its primary date up too, ahead of Florida.
But in the wake of Romneys loss in South Carolina and his win in the Sunshine State, Florida is going to continue to make a strong case that theyre the most important state in the South, Winthrops Huffmon said.
Though the S.C. GOPs reputation has taken a ding, that is not expected to affect the states much-cherished first-in-the-South primary.
The main reason: The chairman of the S.C. Republican Party unilaterally can choose the date of the states GOP primary, unlike the majority of other states.
No legislative approval is needed. There is no signing off by the secretary of state, and no vote is required by others in the state party.
South Carolina offers advantages for candidates too, said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party.
South Carolina is easy to navigate and has an inexpensive media market, allowing more candidates to compete, Dawson said. The state also offers candidates a chance to try out their message on a range of GOP voters, including retirees, military personnel, and fiscal and social conservatives.
And lots of people show up at South Carolinas primary polls, GOP consultant Whetsell noted.
Look at Iowa (the first state to hold caucuses) and how they do things. Its a Tuesday night in January when its freezing and 100,000 people show up, he said. In New Hampshire, its marginally more people who show up.
South Carolina had more than 600,000 people vote more than all of everyone who had voted before combined. Our (first-in-the-South) spot is protected.
And some longtime Republican consultants, including Columbias Richard Quinn, are relishing the states new cowboy reputation.
Were still the first in the South (primary), Quinn said. We still show whether a candidate can appeal to the conservative base of the party. And were now officially unpredictable.
That means folks need to come down here and campaign even harder.
Reach Smith at (803) 414-1340.