South Carolina Republicans need to get their mojo back this week.
If they don’t, Florida Republicans, hosting this week’s GOP convention, could steal South Carolina’s 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 state’s GOP faithful have failed to endorse their party’s eventual nominee.
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Now, South Carolina’s 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 state’s 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 Gingrich’s January primary win in South Carolina was a fluke.
‘We aren’t moderate’
Dave Woodard, a Republican pollster and Clemson University political scientist, sees South Carolina “becoming an outlier because we aren’t moderate.”
“We’re 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 we’re 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” McCain’s 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 state’s 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 Carolina’s 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 Perry’s failed S.C. primary bid. “I don’t think it’s 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 nation’s 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 Carolina’s 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 Romney’s screen,” Whetsell said. “They didn’t 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.
“We’ll 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 Carolina’s. 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 Romney’s loss in South Carolina and his win in the Sunshine State, “Florida is going to continue to make a strong case that they’re the most important state in the South,” Winthrop’s Huffmon said.
Though the S.C. GOP’s reputation has taken a ding, that is not expected to affect the state’s 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 state’s 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 Carolina’s primary polls, GOP consultant Whetsell noted.
“Look at Iowa (the first state to hold caucuses) and how they do things. It’s a Tuesday night in January when it’s freezing and 100,000 people show up,” he said. “In New Hampshire, it’s 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 Columbia’s Richard Quinn, are relishing the state’s new cowboy reputation.
“We’re 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 we’re now officially unpredictable.
“That means folks need to come down here and campaign even harder.”