Can statehouse successes lead to White House?

abeam@thestate.comAugust 27, 2013 

— Republican Gov. Nikki Haley officially launched her re-election campaign on Monday in what Texas Gov. Rick Perry said was a “national effort” of “blue states vs. red states.”

“That’s really what this is about,” Perry said. “It is a national conversation, and I hope Americans are engaging (in it) over the course of the next few years.”

Haley’s campaign kickoff rally in Greenville had the feel of a national event. Haley made her announcement in front of a giant U.S. flag, and she brought in three Republican governors, some with presidential aspirations, to endorse her and help her raise money.

But can the Republican Party transfer its success at the statehouse level – 30 of the 50 governors are Republicans – to the White House? S.C. Republicans say they have the model to do that.

“State by state, we are very inclusive. But when you look nationally, our message tends to be just the opposite. It’s almost hateful toward certain constituents,” said Wesley Donehue, a Columbia-based Republican political strategist who has advised candidates across the country. “We are very bad at figuring out a national message that resonates with the majority of Americans.”

While South Carolina has an ugly racial past, it has elected Haley, the state’s first female governor and the daughter of Indian immigrants, and it boasts Republican Tim Scott, the country’s only African-American U.S. senator. The state also is home to Glenn McCall, one of the few African-American members of the Republican National Committee.

But those examples do not prove the GOP is open to all, says Jaime Harrison, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.

“Just because you might have an ethnic label to you doesn’t mean that you are open to all communities,” said Harrison. By refusing to expand Medicaid and not reforming education funding, S.C. Republicans “have not demonstrated that they are open to all,” he said.

The state Republican Party is divided by some racially tinged issues, unable to agree on immigration reform, for example.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, helped write an immigration reform bill that passed the Senate, touted by some national Republicans as a way for the GOP to reach out to Hispanic voters. But Graham has been criticized heavily by some S.C. conservatives for his support of the bill and has drawn three GOP primary challengers. Meanwhile, fellow Republican Sen. Scott of North Charleston, who voted against the immigration bill, so far has not drawn any primary challengers.

“A large part of the Republican Party has spent many of the last several years talking about who they don’t want in their party,” said Shell Suber, a Columbia-based political consultant who has worked on a statewide campaign targeting Republicans to support immigration reform.

“It’s a very unwelcoming position to take,” Suber added. “We need to change the dynamic from a party that talks a lot about who they don’t want in their party to a party that talks about what they hope to accomplish.”

The state has an inordinate influence on GOP presidential politics.

Its first-in-the-South spot on the GOP presidential primary calendar is why the three Republican governors – Perry, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin – were eager to come to Greenville, and it’s why U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke to about 1,000 people at an Anderson barbecue on Monday, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens.

Paul, son of former GOP presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, said “there are a lot of issues that can expand our base” and help win the White House, including school choice. The S.C. Legislature approved a form of school choice earlier this year, setting aside $8 million to give taxpayers deductions for donating to private-school scholarships for disabled students. Republican Haley plans to unveil her education reform proposal later this year.

“The Republican Party is the party of education,” Paul said. “We’re open to change. The president said he is for hope and change. Well, I haven’t seen any change in education.”

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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