Palmetto State No Lock For Any 2016 GOP Hopeful

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South Carolina has been where underdog Republican presidential candidacies die and front-runners begin to look toward November.

The only asterisk to its 32-year streak of picking the eventual GOP nominee came in the whack-a-mole 2012 contest that placed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over eventual nominee Mitt Romney.

“Romney never closed the deal with the voters,” said legendary South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel about Romney's inability to win the first-in-the-South primary. “Voters cast with their hearts, not their heads, in that cycle.”

Everyone understandably focuses on who is coming and going in Iowa, the first contest of 2016's presidential primary season, and New Hampshire, the first primary state. But South Carolina is arguably as important as either of those; the evidence is apparent in the numbers of miles and handshakes that the hopefuls have logged there already.

Just last Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent the day in the Palmetto State, meeting and talking with business leaders, elected officials, megachurch pastors and funders after attending Gov. Nikki Haley's swearing-in ceremony.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was to be there today; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has spent a great deal of time there. So has former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who campaigned there frequently for Haley and is gearing up for a visit in coming weeks. Same with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.

When they get there, what they find are not the tea-party-type hardliners that everyone assumes make up South Carolina's Republican base, according to Felkel: “Mostly, it's a state whose voters are looking for action and thoughtful policy programs, not stump speeches.”

South Carolina is more complex and less homogenous than people realize, said Bruce Haynes, a media consultant for Purple Strategies, a Washington-based bipartisan consulting firm. Haynes, who got his start in South Carolina politics, points to the diversity of viewpoints and experience from rural areas, new urban boomtowns, military and retiree enclaves, as well as resort areas.

That traditionally made the primary the “Palmetto Presidential Predictor” — or, “As South Carolina went, so went the GOP.”

Haynes said that fell apart in 2012 for a few reasons — and one key reason still will be in place in 2016: “South Carolina's GOP is no longer controlled by dominant establishment figures like Strom Thurmond and Carroll Campbell,” referring to the state's former U.S. senator and governor.

Primary politics are much more plural and fractured; establishment figures such as Haley or Sen. Lindsey Graham don't have the political machines to deliver the state to anyone, Haynes said. “Now a candidate has to go out and build their own coalition, and it's hard to do on this calendar.”

So a candidate willing to commit the time and resources to the state can win; it's up for grabs and not a lock for anyone anymore.

Candidates can't just grab a party-machine infrastructure and parachute in for events; relationships must be built to earn the loyalty of grassroots activists, elected officials, and a solid, trusted staff. “In short, you have to earn everything from the bottom up,” Felkel said.

He breaks the state into four voting blocs: Upstate, a 10-county region whose voters are impacted by the strong business and manufacturing base; Midlands, which tends to be more socially conservative but includes a large number of government workers; Horse Country, which has a lot of Northeast transplants and retirees; and the Coast, a mix of small-business-minded voters and retirees.

“Within the context of all of that, you have strong emphasis on the military that goes back to (when) Thurman and Rep. L.M. Rivers brought military money into the state,” he said.

He dismisses the stereotype of state conservatives rejecting immigration reform: “Look, the number one industry in this state is tourism and the business owners, as well as the rural farm communities, know those jobs have to be filled. Immigration reform is important here.”

Felkel has not signed on to work with anyone in next year's contest, yet. But one thing he can say with certainly about who will win South Carolina next winter: “It's either going to be a governor or former governor, of that I am sure.”

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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