GILBERT, S.C. (AP) — Standing in a rustic barn a short drive from the state capitol, Henry McMaster shocked many South Carolina Republicans seven years ago by supporting Donald Trump for president.
Then Lt. Gov. McMaster became the highest-ranking state official to support Trump in 2016. The event took place in Lexington County, the then-governor’s adopted political home. Nikki Haleywho had repeatedly criticized Trump and supported Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Trump would win the 2016 South Carolina primary and eventually the presidency. After campaigning against him, Haley would accept his nomination for ambassador to the United Nations, effectively making McMaster governor.
This complicated history comes to the forefront as Haley makes a spirited effort to become the main republican alternative to Trump. His strategy is centered on a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries next month before the campaign focuses largely on South Carolina, where the Feb. 24 vote could be the last chance for anyone other than Trump to prove he can survive.
But her home state has grown closer to Trump in the decade since she last ran for office, threatening her ability to tap into her local roots to eke out the victory she promised.
“Ten years is an eternity when all politics is national,” said Matt Moore, former chairman of the state GOP. “Trump appealed to thousands of infrequent voters who reshaped South Carolina politics. Many of them were not focused on state-level issues before, or even today.”
Trump’s hold on the Republican Party
The former president this time has the support of almost every major Republican in South Carolina. The senator Lindsey Grahamwho ran against Trump, suggested he would destroy the Republican Party and openly questioned McMaster’s thinking on the 2016 endorsement, is now a close ally of the former president and co-chairs the campaign Trump State Conference with McMaster.
South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, state treasurer, attorney general and three of the six Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives all support Trump. The only member of Congress to support Haley is Rep. Ralph Norman, a longtime ally.
Trump drew about 50,000 people to a stuffy July 4 rally in Pickens, South Carolina, in the state’s heavily conservative upstate region. Haley, meanwhile, set a campaign record last month with 2,500 people along the state’s southern coast, known for its wealthier, more traditional conservative population.
John Reed, a businessman from upscale Hilton Head Island who donated to Haley’s campaign in 2010, supported Trump in 2016 and 2020. But he’s supporting Haley this time because he says it offers a contrast with Trump’s “divisive and disrespectful” tone.
“I think Nikki is the best of them because she has ability and experience,” Reed said. “Trump’s narcissism, pride and arrogance are simply too much for office.”
Losing South Carolina would be a blow to Haley’s campaign, which is counting on rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and momentum from people open to an alternative to Trump. A loss in the home state primary devastated previous campaigns, including Rubio, who dropped out of the 2016 primary after a blowout loss to Trump in Florida. Sen. Elizabeth Warren withdrew from the 2020 Democratic race after losing several primaries in one day, including in her home state of Massachusetts.
Lexington County, where McMaster supported Trump, is Haley’s adopted political home and the area she represented in the state Legislature. She returned to the same rustic barn in April to hold a rally for her presidential campaign.
She was little known when she launched a campaign for governor against three high-profile candidates — including McMaster — who championed a message of fiscal responsibility and attacked what she described as entrenched powers in Colombia. She aligned herself with the “tea party” movement that emerged under the presidency that of Barack Obama first term.
His main support in this race was Sarah Palinthe former Alaska governor who remained a powerhouse in GOP politics after her 2008 vice-presidential run. Having also been endorsed by Mitt Romney, whose run for the White House she had supported in 2008, Haley nearly won the GOP primary and was victorious in the runoff.
Haley highlights several accomplishments during his six years as governor, including bringing economic investment and jobs to the state, requiring businesses to verify the employment eligibility of their workers and support for voter ID laws. She is perhaps best remembered nationally for helping to persuade the Legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds after a mass shooting in which a white gunman killed eight black church members who were attending a Bible study – although Haley had previously rejected the need for the flag to come down.
Haley’s presidential campaign is pointing to her past popularity in South Carolina as a sign that she will perform well when it comes time for voters in her home state to make their choice.
“South Carolinians first elected Nikki when she was the anti-establishment conservative candidate for governor,” Olivia Perez-Cubas said. “They know she has what it takes to win because they’ve seen her beat the odds before, not just once, but twice.”
But Trump has changed Republican politics in South Carolina and nationally.
That includes Lexington County, where the county’s Republican Party has been rocked for months by a legal battle between two people claiming to oversee it, a split within a recently elected slate favoring Trump’s vision of “Make Great Again to America.”
Michael Burgess, who served as vice chair of the Lexington County GOP and described himself as a “never, ever Trumper,” said he felt the region’s shift toward populism in the years that followed Trump’s election in 2016.
“Lexington County is a microcosm of South Carolina,” said Burgess, who teaches AP American history at a local high school. “What we’ve seen since the 2020 election is a concerted effort by MAGA to take over the county party mechanism and, essentially, when they do, to oust longtime Reagan Republicans. “
Burgess, who said he did not vote for either Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and supported Democrat Joe Biden in 2020, said he initially supported the D.C. senator. South Tim Scott in the 2024 Republican primary, but that he now views Haley as the party’s best bet. to defeat Trump.
But another person who supported Haley when she ran in 2010 is now criticizing her for criticizing Trump in 2016, even though he supported her work as governor.
“When she came out and said, ‘We have to ignore a lot of loud voices,’ that really offended me, because those were the voices that got her elected governor,” said Allen Olsen, who founded a “tea association”. party” in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. “Even though I understood what she was doing, I really felt like I had been stabbed in the back.”
State Rep. RJ May, one of the leaders of the state’s House Freedom Caucus, argued that Haley is now more of an establishment figure because of his service as governor and then United Nations ambassador United.
He said he doesn’t see Trump the same way — even though Trump is now a former president running his third White House campaign.
“It’s difficult to follow this path in relation to Donald Trump, given the militarization of the federal government that we are seeing,” said May, who did not endorse any candidate in the presidential primary. “One thing I don’t think you can call Donald Trump is an insider.”
But there are still people in South Carolina waiting for Haley to show up at the White House.
At the event in Bluffton, South Carolina, which attracted 2,500 people, Veronica Wetzel donned a “Nikki 2024” hat that she says she bought years ago. Now, she says she’s ready to vote for Haley, in part because she wants to see Republicans win in November.
“I really don’t know if Donald Trump can win,” Wetzel said, adding that she had supported Trump in previous contests. “We need to nominate someone who can win, because the last thing we need right now is to lose this election.”
Meg Kinnard can be contacted at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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