South Carolina emerges as ground zero for possible GOP presidential hopefuls

Photo illustration of, from left to right, Nikki Haley, Donald Trump and Tim Scott in varying tones of red on a blue South Carolina with white paint marks behind the state on a light blue background.
Illustration / Madeline Monroe; Associated Press; Staff Photo

South Carolina is emerging as an early battleground in the Republican presidential primary as a parade of potential White House hopefuls zeros in on the Palmetto State. 

Former President Trump traveled to Columbia last month to roll out his South Carolina leadership team, while Nikki Haley, a former two-term South Carolina governor and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is expected to make an announcement in Charleston later this month. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) will launch his listening tour with an event in Charleston, and former Vice President Mike Pence initially planned two stops in the state this week. 

The convergence of prospective Republican presidential hopefuls comes ahead of a consequential 2024 election and in a state with a history of choosing the eventual GOP White House nominee. 

“As football season winds down, presidential primary season kicks off,” said Rob Godfrey, formerly a chief spokesman and deputy chief of staff for Haley who is currently unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. 

“Since the inception of its primary, the winner of the South Carolina contest has gone on to be the Republican nominee for president every time except for once, so it makes sense that we would see candidates … of all backgrounds, candidates with all visions, candidates with White House aspirations, come and make South Carolina like a second home,” he added. 

Though Trump is the only high-profile Republican who’s officially declared a White House bid, Haley is expected to formally announce her presidential campaign on Feb. 15. At the same time, other big names like Scott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have been widely floated as potential challengers.  

Haley and Scott are, of course, no strangers to the state, but Pence has made several visits to the Palmetto State. Last year alone, those included remarks at Florence Baptist Temple in Florence, Wofford College in Spartanburg and a commencement address at Columbia International University in the state’s capital. 

“I think that South Carolina presents a unique opportunity for Vice President Pence where he has to decide to get into the race in the sense that there is a heavy concentration of evangelical voters, pro-family voters, pro-life voters and voters who have been … longtime supporters of kind of the traditional conservative movement,” said a Pence adviser, noting that South Carolina was the first state Pence visited after leaving office.  

“And so I think that you’ve seen him go to every corner of the state to have those conversations with those voters, and the types of events and the types of visits that we do are intentional as well.” 

Trump has previous experience campaigning in the state during past presidential bids and has weighed in on Republican primaries, including this past cycle with current incumbents and challengers like Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and Scott. 

“President Trump leads by wide margins in polls both nationally and within South Carolina. He made a successful trip to the state and unveiled his leadership team consisting of elected officials and grassroots leaders. President Trump is the only person who can stop Joe Biden’s radical agenda and return America to greatness,” said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung.

The earlier-than-usual state visits may in part be a reaction to Trump’s early 2024 announcement, said Danielle Vinson, a politics and international affairs professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. 

But being first to the race may not be an advantage for Trump in South Carolina, where voters are known to keep their options open.  

“I think he does still have a very strong base of support, but South Carolinians have always — this has been true in both Republican and Democratic primaries in the state — they’ve been pretty practical about things, and so they don’t always vote their heart,” Vinson said. “They sometimes look at the lay of the land and think about the bigger picture of who can actually win the general election.” 

poll released by the conservative South Carolina Policy Council last month, which was conducted by Spry Strategies, found that 37 percent of likely 2024 South Carolina Republican primary voters believed their party should nominate the former president. In a hypothetical match-up, the poll found Trump trailing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) 33 percent to 52 percent. 

Some key conservatives have signaled they’re keeping their powder dry and waiting to hear what other candidates may have to offer. 

Dave Wilson, president of the influential Christian conservative nonprofit Palmetto Family Council, told The Hill in an interview that he was still undecided, dubbing it “the beginning of a 12-month interview process.” 

Indeed, the Palmetto Family Council will be hearing from a slew of possible GOP White House candidates in March during their Vision ‘24 National Conservative Forum, whose invited guests include Trump, Pence, Haley, Scott and DeSantis.  

Wilson, who was speaking to The Hill while en route to Florida, said those guests had not been confirmed at the time of the interview and added he was hoping to get a few additional guests added to their lineup.  

South Carolinians may also be in a unique position to choose between two candidates from their turf should Haley and Scott both run.  

“I think the best advantage that both of them have is when you get down to the grassroots level, both of them have already recruited county chairs in every county in South Carolina for their own races,” said South Carolina-based GOP strategist Andrew Boucher. 

“They’ve been to all of the barbecues … and the Saturday morning breakfasts that each of the counties will put on and when they walk in, oftentimes they’re seeing old friends.” 

There’s also personal history between the two given that Haley picked Scott in 2012 to serve the remainder of former Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) term. He has continued to serve as a senator following several elections since.  

“He’s going to go out and see, does the message of faith in America resonate with people and I think that’s where, and at which point, he could make a decision. But I think he’s going to go out and talk to as many folks in South Carolina and Iowa and elsewhere across the country,” said a source close to Scott’s team, discussing Scott’s listening tour. 

Scott is attending the Charleston County Republican Party’s annual Black History Month Banquet this month, which will touch on Black conservatism, among other themes, the source said.

There’s already enthusiasm about having a South Carolina Republican on the national stage. Wilson said that he would “love to see somebody from South Carolina as part of the ticket,” whether that be the presidential pick or their running mate, saying he would be “very excited about that.”

For now, politicos suggest that Trump already has a locked-in base of GOP voters in the state and will be a formidable challenger to any Republican who enters the race. 

“Right now, Donald Trump is still the candidate to beat in the Republican primary whether folks want to admit that or not,” said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “And so everyone else to this point are running for second.” 

One South Carolina-based Republican strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly suggested one of the hurdles that South Carolina Republicans will be watching for is whether GOP contenders write off South Carolina in their campaigns given that Scott and Haley already have deep ties to the state.  

But Trump’s recently unveiled leadership team and Pence’s numerous visits to the state suggest that may not be a concern for possible contenders. 

“You don’t want to be left holding the bag coming out of New Hampshire with zero infrastructure in South Carolina because you decided that Nikki Haley and Tim Scott had it sewn up, so why bother,” the strategist said. “Who knows what’s going to happen between now and Iowa?” 

Tags 2024 GOP presidential primary 2024 presidential election 2024 primaries Donald Trump Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign GOP 2024 Mike Pence Mike Pence Nikki Haley Nikki Haley Ron DeSantis South Carolina South Carolina primary Tim Scott Tim Scott

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