The Buzz

Leading SC politicians could be kingmakers for 2016 candidates

US Senator Tim Scott and SC Governor Nikki Haley
US Senator Tim Scott and SC Governor Nikki Haley tdominick@thestate.com

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott has not reached his fifth anniversary on Capitol Hill, but his presidential town halls have become a required stop for 2016 Republican White House hopefuls.

Through the end of the year, the top 16 GOP candidates will sit down with the North Charleston Republican in forums with voters across the state. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, comes to Columbia Thursday for the third of Tim’s Town Halls.

Scott is among a growing group of S.C. politicians, including Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, hosting candidate events. The candidates hope their hosts eventually could award them an endorsement that could sway S.C. voters during the South’s first GOP primary, in February.

“There’s political jockeying about who’s going to the king- or queen-maker in South Carolina,” state Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison said.

This year, at the insistence of the Republican National Committee, GOP presidential candidates are having fewer debates than four years ago. In part, to make up for that loss of visibility, the candidates are attending more friendly forums, hosted by prominent S.C. GOP leaders.

▪  Haley is co-hosting a Republican presidential forum in Greenville next month with Heritage Action, an arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, now headed by former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

▪  U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a Laurens Republican who rode the Tea Party wave into Congress in 2010, co-hosted the Freedom Summit in Greenville last spring, attracting 10 GOP candidates. Monday, Duncan held his Faith and Freedom Barbecue in Anderson, featuring speeches by three Republican presidential hopefuls.

▪  Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson, considered a possible candidate for higher office in 2018, will moderate town-hall meetings with the GOP presidential candidates on judicial issues. Sixteen have agreed to attend.

“It’s political flirting,” said Phil Bailey, senior project manager at Push Advocacy, a Columbia political firm.

Like Republicans, Democrats have only one debate scheduled in South Carolina. But they could hold candidate forums, too.

State party chairman Harrison said an event is in the works, but he declined to discuss details.

However, a forum hosted by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the Columbia Democrat who is the party’s only representative in the state’s congressional delegation, would draw White House hopefuls. Clyburn does not plan to endorse a candidate before the Feb. 27 Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina, his spokeswoman said.

On the other hand, Haley and Scott – called the “crown jewels” of GOP endorsers – have said they plan to endorse a Republican candidate ahead of the state’s Feb. 20 GOP presidential primary.

Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and Scott, the state’s first African-American U.S. senator, are much-desired endorsers because they show off GOP diversity. They also are popular nationally and relatively young, both in their 40s.

“Tim is historic, just like she is historic,” longtime S.C. Republican consultant Richard Quinn said.

In recent weeks, Haley has regained some of her national swagger after successfully engineering the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House after June’s Charleston church massacre. Talk about Haley as a potential GOP vice presidential candidate has picked up in advance of her National Press Club speech, planned for next week in Washington.

“Nikki Haley is important and (has) become a bit of a phenomenon,” Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.

Scott also has been the subject of some vice presidential speculation after his recent well-received speeches to national conservative leaders.

That has helped make Scott’s presidential town-hall meetings “must” events for the GOP candidates, said Katon Dawson, a former state Republican Party chairman who is working with the Perry campaign.

Huffmon added Scott’s short time in Congress means he has few negatives in his record. The senator also did not tarnish his support among his base when he backed removing the Confederate flag, Huffmon said.

Scott’s wingman during his presidential town-hall meetings also holds a coveted endorsement.

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, has picked up national attention by leading a special House committee probing the Benghazi terrorist attack and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton’s use of email while secretary of state. “Republicans are going, ‘This is the person that can help us beat her,’ ” Huffmon said of Gowdy.

However, Gowdy has said he has no plans to endorse a candidate before the 2016 GOP primary.

But the Republican candidates would win support from other S.C. politicians who are holding presidential events. Both U.S. Rep. Duncan and Attorney General Wilson are leaning toward making endorsements.

And they are not the only sought-after S.C. Republican backers, political experts said.

Former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, whose previous support of the Bush family earned him an ambassadorship to Canada under President George W. Bush, is leading the political-action committee for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca Republican who is seeking the GOP nomination for president.

Should Graham, who is polling 16th among the 17 GOP candidates, drop out of the presidential race before the S.C. primary, Wilkins’ endorsement would be up for grabs.

Graham’s endorsement would have value, too. “Lindsey would matter to a lot of people,” Dawson said. “He has a natural donor base.”

Top S.C. presidential endorsers

Leading S.C. politicians whose endorsements could help sway voters to 2016 presidential candidates, according to interviews with experts. Some top politicians already have said they do not plan to pick a favorite before the February primaries.

Republicans

Gov. Nikki Haley

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott

U.S. Reps. Trey Gowdy, Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney

Former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, supporting U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham

Democrats

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn

Former Gov. Jim Hodges, already has endorsed Hillary Clinton

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

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