A loss by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney could be a wake-up call for the national Republican Party, giving ultra-conservative states like South Carolina a chance to say, We told you so! You should have picked a more conservative nominee!
A loss by Romney, panned by many S.C. Republicans as too moderate, could be a clue to the national Republican Party that it has moved too far to the center, predict some S.C. politicos.
It could send a signal to the national party that conservatives want to banish the GOP moderates, purify the party and step in line with its more conservative leaders, like U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville.
If Romney loses, its proof positive that (South Carolina) did have a better understanding (in the states January primary, which Romney lost) that the country needed a more conservative leader than what was offered, said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard, who also is a Republican pollster, adviser and co-writer of a 2007 book with DeMint.
Therell be a lot of finger-pointing and soul-searching if Romney loses to Obama, and then (Republicans) will be looking to identify true conservative candidates to lead the party, Woodard predicts.
Get ready, he adds, because theyll be talking about Jim DeMint. Theyre going to be looking for true conservatives, and there are only a handful of them.
That prediction doesnt mean S.C. Republicans will not back Romney in Tuesdays election. They will and, as a result, Romney is expected to easily carry the state and its nine electoral votes.
But S.C. Republicans plan to cast ballots for Romney, in large part, because the former governor who governed Massachusetts as a moderate and then reinvented himself as a conservative to win the GOP nomination is their only chance to beat President Barack Obama.
Rise of DeMint?
Romney was not the first choice of the S.C. GOP.
In the January primary, S.C. Republicans chose the more conservative Newt Gingrich over moderate Romney.
S.C. Republicans also have rejected others moderates in recent years, voting instead for a Tea Party-flavored congressional delegation more in tune with DeMint, one of the nations most conservative senators.
Will the national Republican Party give South Carolina props for seeing early on that Romney was not the best GOP choice to win the presidency if he loses Tuesday?
Dont count on it, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist.
Theres no way the (presidential) race would have been this close if Newt Gingrich had been the candidate instead of Romney, Huffmon said. So South Carolina can say, We told you so. But the response would be, Yeah, but yall picked Newt!
Nobody is saying Newt is not a smart man, Huffmon said. But no word short of debacle would have described a general election run by him.
Still, Huffmon agrees that DeMint wont lose any clout if Romney loses and, in fact, possibly stands to gain some.
It is too soon to predict whether DeMint would seek a higher post or whether he might serve in a kingmaker role, identifying and introducing the nation to conservative leaders.
DeMint repeatedly has said he will not seek re-election in 2016, barring an extraordinary situation. He has been busy in recent months funneling money, via his super-PAC, to GOP Senate candidates who share his right-wing brand of Republicanism. (Some in the GOP are not particular fans of DeMints attempts to influence other races. They note he has history of backing far-right candidates who win GOP primaries such as Todd Akin in Missouri but are so far right that they are unable to win general elections, costing the GOP a chance to control the Senate.)
S.C. Republican consultant Luke Byars agrees DeMints star would shine brighter if Romney loses. But that is because a Romney loss would lead to a second term of Obama with tax hikes, liberal legislation and an unwillingness to work with Republicans, Byars predicts.
Faced with that prospect, Republican voters will turn to true-believer conservatives like DeMint and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising Tea Party star, to lead the charge against the left, the GOP consultant says.
If Republicans have to swallow a far-left, liberal agenda, they are going to want leaders who remain true to conservative principals and who will stand up, quite frankly, to what might be a liberal takeover of the federal government, Byars said. Youd see folks like Jim DeMint and Marco Rubio those who can speak to conservatives and get them to rally. Those guys would gain in notoriety and, potentially, become even big leaders.
(DeMint) and Marco represent not just a conservative position on the political spectrum, they both stand for something. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say.
Why not toss everybody out?
However, the idea of a post-Romney-loss purge of GOP moderates does not sit well with some S.C. Republicans, including former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of Travelers Rest.
Inglis got a taste of what a purge would be like during the 2010 congressional primary, when he was branded as too moderate, particularly for his belief in man-made climate change.
Inglis was squashed by his more conservative-opponent, now-U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg.
If Romney loses, Republicans will be wondering, and there will be some soul-searching if Barack Obama is re-elected, predicts Inglis, now head of a conservative group that advocates for acceptance that climate change is a scientific reality, and is costing the country money and hurting its health but can be solved by market forces.
A purge of GOP moderates would work against the national partys long-term goal of building a big tent, inclusive of voters of different races, religions and creeds, says Inglis, who points to his 90-plus ratings while in Congress from various conservative groups to insist that he is not a moderate.
That thinking tends to shrink the crowd. Everybody has some kind of impurity. Why not toss everybody out? Inglis teased.
Instead, Inglis is hopeful Romney will be elected and, under his leadership, the economy will improve. That, he hopes, will lead to an excited national Republican Party, open to new people and new ideas for solving long-term problems, including climate change.
Others arent willing even to speculate on how the GOP would react to a Romney loss.
Among those are Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. I dont allow myself to talk negatively, Connelly said.
If Obama lands a second term, it will be a testament to the difficulty of ousting an incumbent, Connelly says, not a sign that Romney was too moderate.
Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.