Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., jumped out of a gray SUV in Columbia and got back to work. Joined by a small staff and a few fellow Republicans, he’d taken an aerial tour to see flood damage to South Carolina. Now, he was hitting the ground to meet victims, walking down the sloping streets of a neighborhood where each house was being emptied before the mold could conquer it.
“Everybody gripes about the government until they need it, sort of like a lawyer,” said Graham, the state’s senior senator and a struggling candidate for president who is among the diminishing number of Republicans still talking about the great things government can do.
In a week that began with Hurricane Joaquin’s floods and ended with the House Republican caucus rejecting the heir apparent to House Speaker John Boehner, flood relief stood out as an ironic topic in this key early nominating state. Skepticism of Washington and fear of federal power, always strong here, have rarely been stronger. Several of South Carolina’s Republican members of Congress are among the leaders of the rebellion underway inside the GOP.
All of it cements the uncertainty pervading the Republican presidential nominating contest - here and across the country. Much like in Washington, where the abrupt withdrawal from the speaker’s race of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., signaled total party chaos, the view is fading that, eventually, this presidential race will get back to normal.
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Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who recently called South Carolina a “lock,” is at 5.7 percent here, according to the RealClearPolitics average. That’s good enough for only fifth place, 28 points behind frontrunner Donald Trump and 12 behind former neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Four years ago, on his way to losing the state primary, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney never polled lower than 13 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another establishment favorite who is ahead of Bush nationally and rising in recent polls, is currently even further behind in South Carolina, with a RealClearPolitics average of just 5 percent.
“The pattern of crowning the nominee has been broken,” said Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina GOP chairman whose office is festooned with Bush memorabilia, down to a “I Miss W” coffee mug.
“The voters are a little angrier with establishment Republicans than they have been,” Wynn said. “They’re looking for a different type of candidate.” Of Carson and Trump, he added: “I don’t think that would have happened 10 years ago. I don’t even think it could have happened four years ago.”
In recent weeks, Bush and his allies have looked at South Carolina as a state that could break the fever of the Republican primaries. “I’m going to win South Carolina,” Bush told reporters last month. “Take it to the bank.”
But how some of his supporters planned to do it revealed how little they may understand of what’s happening. Donors and Bush family friends told the New York Times that former President George W. Bush would be a welcome presence in South Carolina; former party chairman Katon Dawson suggested that W “could win the race” for his brother.
Graham agreed with that, against self-interest. “The most popular Republican is George W. Bush,” he said. “I do polling. I know.”
Many in the grassroots see it differently. A voter who preferred Bush’s presidency to Obama’s is not necessarily ready for a Bush restoration.
“I tell ya, in retrospect, I don’t think we got a lot from George W. Bush,” said state senator Lee Bright, a 2014 primary opponent of Graham who now co-chairs the South Carolina presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “You’d hope with the justices he appointed we’d see some improvement. We didn’t. Bush definitely didn’t move the ball for conservatives. If he’d have done half as much for conservatives as Obama did for liberals, anybody named Bush would have been our next president.”
Even some Bush allies concede that the state has evolved, and the base has shifted right, since the days when South Carolina was known for affirming the party’s nominee. In 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008, the state’s primary electorate voted for the candidate backed by the Republican establishment. In 2012, it voted for Newt Gingrich.
There is no sign that it has moderated since. The Gingrich win, and polling of the state’s February 20 primary, have revealed just how little control the establishment now has in the state. And few realities illustrate the point than the fallen stature of the Bush family.
One problem for the establishment is a definition of “conservative” that has shifted between Bush campaigns. In 2000, George W. Bush could win South Carolina without major concessions to the right, with an education policy that relied on the federal government to write and enforce standards. Anything that sounds like a federal standard is anathema to South Carolina Republicans now.
Back in his office, a signed picture of Jeb Bush peering over his shoulder, Wynn suggested a few ways that the party’s Brahmins could consolidate, with the caveat that no one had been able to do it right for years. Carroll Campbell, the second Republican governor of the state since Reconstruction, built the network that once elevated establishment candidates.
“There’s no Carroll Campbell today,” said Wynn. “Gov. Haley isn’t interested in building the kind of organization he built. Sen. Tim Scott is vetting everyone, not organizing around one candidate. If those congressmen kind of got together - if they said, look, it would be in our interest to pick up an oar and start paddling, that might create a kind of Campbell effect. But that’s not happening unless someone drops out.”