A polarizing figure who energizes both the left and right, President Donald Trump will loom over the Nov. 6 general election.
What remains to be seen is how Trump’s ties to S.C. Republicans will influence Palmetto State voters.
“Does Trump hurt or help? The answers is, ‘Yes,’ ” said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon. “He fires up both bases.”
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The national and South Carolina economies have improved since Trump’s stunning 2016 election. Manufacturers have promised to add thousands of jobs and pump billions of new investment into the state. However, dark clouds are on the horizon in the form of a trade war between the United States and China.
Automakers — including BMW and Volvo, both with major S.C. plants — have said retaliatory tariffs levied by the two countries have slowed their sales and could cut U.S. production.
The president’s personal attacks on women also have fueled fears the GOP may lose suburban female voters. His provocations on Twitter and postures on cultural and racial issues also could alienate moderates, independents and undecideds.
Trump, though, holds an 80 percent approval rating among Republicans in South Carolina, a red, conservative state, according to an April Winthrop University poll. And his approval among South Carolinians as a whole has tended to be a few points higher than the national average.
A Rasmussen Reports daily presidential tracking poll released Thursday said 47 percent of likely U.S. voters approved of Trump’s job performance. Fifty-two percent disapproved. That includes 34 percent who strongly approved of Trump’s job performing and 43 percent who strongly disapproved.
A new poll from the Atlanta-based Trafalgar Group, conducted Oct. 12-14, shows Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s numbers bumped up after the U.S. Senate confirmation fight over Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Nationally, that fight — seen, by some, as an indirect attack on Trump — galvanized GOP voters in red states, matching earlier Democratic enthusiasm in the midterm election.
While the Kavanaugh sexual assault allegations and hearings have riled the Republican base, they also have fired up Democrats and women, said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
“Trump has broken a lot of the norms that dominate headlines. He’s a topic of conversation you can’t escape from,” Knotts said. “It can really motivate some of the Republican base to want to defend Trump. But, I’m thinking about … suburban women in the Columbia, Greenville-Spartanburg and Charleston metro areas. Has there been enough frustration with Trump’s rhetoric to see someone vote for a Democrat who normally wouldn’t?
“At the end of the day, it’s a Republican leaning state ... and Trump remains popular with the majority, or close to the majority, of South Carolinians.”
Democratic state Rep. James Smith, who is running for governor against McMaster, contends support for Trump does not equate to support for McMaster.
“Many Trump supporters were frustrated with the establishment, with the same people who have always been in power keeping us in an unsatisfying and harmful status quo,” Smith’s campaign said in a statement. “Henry epitomizes this good old boy status quo that many Trump supporters have sought to get away from. We are proud to have support from citizens with a wide spectrum of political ideologies.”
Ear of the president
McMaster, an early Trump supporter and close ally, leaned heavily on his close relationship to the president to prevail in a primary runoff to secure the GOP nomination.
But for all the times McMaster says he has pushed back against Trump administration policies, Democrats and others argue the S.C. governor has little to show for his efforts — from offshore drilling to tariffs to nuclear waste disposal.
McMaster scored a large victory in securing $49 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Charleston Harbor to increase cargo capacity at the Port of Charleston.
But McMaster has been unable to dissuade the president from continuing his tough trade policy toward China and European countries. S.C. business leaders warn those policies could cost the Palmetto State jobs as manufacturers shift production overseas, where it costs less to do business.
McMaster has said state and business leaders must be patient and let trade negotiations play out.
However, working with the state’s congressional delegation, McMaster was successful in getting an exemption from Trump’s tariffs for Fairfield County TV maker Element Electronics.
Element made national news in August after it blamed Trump’s tariffs on imported Chinese components, used in its TVs, for its decision to close a Winnsboro plant and lay off 126 workers. However, Element last month told local officials it would keep its plant open after receiving a critical exemption from the latest tariffs.
McMaster also has been unable to secure a reprieve from the Trump administration’s decision to end a ban on offshore drilling. Coastal communities worry drilling will pollute the state’s waters and beaches, and hurt its multibillion-dollar-a-year tourism sector.
Meetings with U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry also failed to stop the administration from moving to shutter a nuclear fuel facility near Aiken that employs hundreds.
McMaster, state Attorney General Alan Wilson, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson — all Republicans —sat down with Trump at the White House Thursday to argue the mixed-oxide fuel facility should be saved at the Savannah River Site.
Despite their clout with the president, the delegation left without being able to report definitively whether the project would survive,.
But for the setbacks, McMaster insists his relationship with Trump has helped the state, citing, for example, the president’s visit to Horry County after Hurricane Florence.
“On a number of issues … we’ve seen the payout (of the governor’s relationship with the president), and see the governor with a front-row seat at the table for these issues,” McMaster campaign spokeswoman Caroline Anderegg said. ”The common theme is any time South Carolina needs something a window in the president’s schedule opens up. ... That is incredibly unique.”
‘Kellyanne Conway of Congress’?
June’s primary turned U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford into as a case study of what happens when a GOP incumbent crosses the president.
State Rep. Arrington, R-Summerville, made Sanford’s frequent criticisms of the president the centerpiece of her GOP primary campaign, selling herself to Republican voters as a champion of Trump.
Trump endorsed Arrington in the hours before the polls closed on primary night, and Sanford lost, 51 percent to 47 percent.
Fast-forward to this fall, however, and Arrington finds herself at odds with Trump over offshore drilling and tariffs.
Her 1st District election opponent, Charleston Democrat Joe Cunningham, repeatedly has cited his opposition to offshore drilling, while taking aim at Arrington’s shifting stance on the issue. (She now says she opposes drilling for oil off the S.C. coast.)
During a televised debate Tuesday, Arrington said she has met with the president, vice president and senior administration officials to push for an offshore-drilling exemption for South Carolina.
Arrington also has broken with Trump over tariffs.
“No tariff is good. Tariffs are a tax,” Arrington said during the debate.
“I don’t agree with everything that’s being done,” Arrington said of Trump’s trade policies. “But I have the respect of the president of the United States to have that conversation. ... Who do you want more in the next two years representing you? Someone who is going to have a seat at the table or someone who is going to be on the menu?”
Cunningham contends Arrington’s record doesn’t match her rhetoric, noting she told Breitbart News she will be the “Kellyanne Conway of Congress.”
“You spent your entire primary attacking Congressman Sanford because he stood up to Trump,” he said at their debate.
The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is putting resources behind Cunningham as part of its “Red to Blue” program. That initiative targets vulnerable Republicans, signaling the group thinks the seat could be flipped in a “blue wave” of new Democrats in November.
“It’s a safely Republican district, but offshore drilling could hurt her,” said Winthrop University’s Huffmon. “But all of our districts are pretty well gerrymandered. Things that might tip races nationally, in the aggregate, do not necessarily make a difference in an individual race.”
Economy trumps Trump
In the Midlands, U.S. Rep. Wilson’s campaign says the improving economy and “mob behavior” displayed during the Kavanaugh hearings will motivate voters to support GOP candidates who will help continue Trump’s policies on lower taxes, illegal immigration and unemployment, and rebuilding the military.
“While there has been a great deal (of) anti-Trump intensity on the left, the Democrats have failed to present voters with a unified and solution-oriented message,” Wilson campaign manager Jon Parker said in a statement. “Anti-Trump is enough to build on, but you need a clear plan of action.”
Democrat Sean Carrigan of Chapin, who is challenging Wilson for the 2nd District seat in the U.S. House, said he has heard from disillusioned Trump supporters, turned off by his trade policies, the growing national deficit, calls for entitlement reform and moves to undercut health coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
“People feel like they’re being treated as a liability to our government, as opposed to people who are treated with dignity and respect,” Carrigan said. “Joe Wilson failed to be the check and balance that is required of him … on the executive when he’s called to do so.”
As an example, Carrigan cites Trump’s tariffs, which he argues will increase the cost of doing business in South Carolina, cost jobs and increase the price for goods and services.
Wilson contends Trump’s policies protect the state’s steel and iron industry from unfair Chinese trade practices, and that trade negotiations have produced benefits, including the recently concluded U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
“The president has been very, very successful, which helps South Carolina, a state that’s so positively impacted by trade,” Wilson said. “Trade is very important, and the president’s policies, I believe, will be very, very positive and create jobs in America.”
Wilson also said he co-sponsored a House resolution to prevent insurers from denying coverage to patients with pre-existing conditions. Critics and some health-care experts, however, argue the proposal includes imprecise language that would allow companies to charge people with pre-existing conditions more for coverage, or reinstate annual and lifetime limits that restrict the amount of insurance.
Much of the doom and gloom over tariffs is hypothetical at the moment, said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard, a former political consultant for GOP congressmen.
“Seems to me, right now, the economy is roaring and things look good,” Woodard said. “People vote retrospectively on how they’re doing right now. Are you better off now than you were two years ago? And most people are going to say, ‘Yes.’ ”
The No. 1 issue in every election is the economy, Woodard said. While “BMW is going to suffer under the Trump policies, people will still reward the president for the (overall) economic performance,” he predicted.
“With three weeks to go, I see no ripple effect from anything (by Trump) that’s going to hurt Republicans” in South Carolina.