WASHINGTON — Residents of U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy’s conservative South Carolina Upstate district are applauding his assignment to run a new House investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, local political observers say.
Nationally, however, the assignment comes with certain risks, as the two-term congressman from Spartanburg faces pressure to conduct a fair inquiry that also uncovers new evidence against the Obama administration.
Republican leaders have tapped Gowdy to consolidate four previous House investigations into the terrorist attacks and break new ground on security lapses leading up to the attacks, the military’s response and how the White House handled the situation.
It will be Gowdy’s first time in the national spotlight.
“There is already talk that if Republicans win (the White House) in 2016, he could be attorney general, and there certainly won’t be any less talk about that because of this,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor who worked on Gowdy’s first campaign for solicitor 14 years ago.
Locally, Gowdy’s role is being celebrated.
“I’ve never known him to have statewide ambitions, but he’s a popular guy and this will certainly make him more popular,” said Chip Felkel, a Greenville public affairs consultant with a background in Republican politics.
Democrats, however, say the Benghazi panel could backfire on Gowdy.
“He has that reputation as a smart, nice fellow, but he could ruin that, I think, with this investigation, depending on how he plays it,” said Ron Romine, chairman of the Spartanburg County Democratic Party. “This is not Watergate. It’s really a hyper-partisan thing that will delight people already supporting Trey Gowdy, but it could turn off some folks.”
Gowdy, a former state and federal prosecutor before he was elected to Congress in 2010, has pledged to run a fair inquiry on Benghazi. In a recent interview, he said he expects that not everyone will reach the same conclusions based on what his committee finds.
“I’ve got to get the facts,” Gowdy said. “The reality is that until you have talked to every witness ... then you’re guessing. There’s a reason you tell the jury that they can’t make up their mind until you hear everything.”
The Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. consulate killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Previous independent and congressional investigations have concluded that security should have been increased and military assets should have been repositioned based on earlier violence in the region.
Republicans, however, continue to allege the White House downplayed the terrorist threat because of the approaching presidential election.
The organizer of a Tea Party group in Gowdy’s hometown said the congressman’s assignment doesn’t carry political risks in the Upstate, where Benghazi remains a major issue. She dismissed any possibility that Gowdy’s committee could stumble by failing to uncover new information about the attacks.
“They find new evidence every day,” said Karen Martin, organizer of the Spartanburg Tea Party.
Nic Lane, chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP, agreed Gowdy’s assignment only will boost his stature. “I can’t see a scenario where this doesn’t go well.”
Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said serving on the panel can help Republicans get national attention from conservative activists, but there’s also a risk.
“You have a base that is absolutely convinced that there is a smoking gun in there,” Ornstein said. “If you don’t find the smoking gun, some people in that base may think it’s because you didn’t look hard enough or you were inept.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offers proof that a high-profile role in Congress can be a springboard to higher office. As a House member, Graham helped manage the effort to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998. Four years later, he was elected to the Senate.
Gowdy has no Republican or Democratic challengers in his attempt to win a third term this year.
Democrats haven’t yet decided whether to participate in the renewed investigation. Republicans have seven seats on the committee and gave Democrats five.
Asked how the investigation will be considered legitimate without Democratic participation, Gowdy said, “It depends on whether we do a good job.”