Campaign 2024: South Carolina readies for its moment in political spotlight

BLUFFTON, S.C. — Along the busy highway to Hilton Head Island sits the Okatie Ale House, a cozy sports bar that’s preparing for its presidential closeup.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visits South Carolina on Friday for the first time since launching his White House bid, he’ll make a pit stop at this Low Country eatery.

It won’t be the last visit to small-town South Carolina locales for DeSantis and the rest of the field as campaigning across the first-in-the-South primary state heats up long before the vote on Feb. 3.

Since South Carolina held its first Republican primary in 1980, the state has picked the candidate who became the party’s nominee in every election save one: Mitt Romney came in second to Newt Gingrich here in 2012.

The state’s conservative voters once prided themselves on their fabled “firewall” that doomed scores of big-name figures and insurgents over the decades. But this campaign will challenge South Carolina’s kingmaker narrative like no other.

Two home-state candidates — former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott — are battling for the nomination. Former President Donald Trump wants to run up the score in a state he has twice carried by double digits. And DeSantis is depending on South Carolina to help prove he’s got a credible shot.

Donald Trump has twice won by double digits in South Carolina, a state where the victor in the state's GOP primary has failed only once since 1980 to go on to capture the Republican presidential nomination. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

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With other prominent conservatives inching toward a run, South Carolina could determine which Republican will emerge as Trump’s chief GOP nemesis. Savvy candidates are racing already to lock down support from the Palmetto State’s voters, politicians and activists.

“It’s been very active — to put it mildly,” Aiken County GOP Chairwoman Debbie Epling said. “And It’s only going to get busier.”

‘It starts on the ground’

In South Carolina’s first primary, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s victory helped knock out a feared Texas rival and propelled the future president toward the nomination. Since then, the state has staged some of the GOP’s most decisive moments.

Vice President George H.W. Bush used the South Carolina primary in 1988 to suffocate challenges from Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign soared after his crushing defeat of John McCain. In 2016, Trump’s victory in South Carolina smothered Jeb Bush’s White House hopes.

Next year’s contest will center on divides both familiar and fresh: Rifts between rural and suburban voters; hard-right conservatives and their more mainstream cousins; and, perhaps most significantly, pro-Trump factions and those ready to move on from his brand of politics.

Mike Page, the chair of Florence County’s Republican chapter, said he’s already been contacted by two presidential campaigns seeking meet-and-greet sessions. He made plain that he doesn’t take the attention for granted.

“But I’ll be honest — I am just as excited about our city and county races as I am about the national races,” Page said. “It’s imperative to get conservatives in at every level — and it starts on the ground.”

In Aiken County, Epling said much of the buzz centers on DeSantis, Scott and Trump. Epling is looking for a nominee who can bring down the debt, curb illegal immigration and — perhaps most importantly — light a fire under apathetic GOP voters.

“You go to one of Trump’s rallies and the electricity in the room can light up a city. And Sen. Scott has almost the same amount of charisma,” Epling said. “Being in the room with those two, well, that’s what you want to see and feel in a presidential candidate.”

All that attention lavished on South Carolina is the envy of political types in Georgia, one of the few truly competitive battlegrounds in 2024.

At President Joe Biden’s urging, Democrats tried to push Georgia up the calendar to join South Carolina as one of the earliest voting states. But Georgia Republicans balked at the idea, with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger setting next year’s vote for March 12.

Democrats tried to move Georgia to an earlier spot on the primary calendar in 2024 so it could compete for attention with South Carolina's primary on Feb. 3, but Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger set the Georgia contest for March 12. (Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Meanwhile, Democrats scheduled South Carolina as the nation’s first presidential primary in 2024, moving the state ahead of New Hampshire and formally ousting Iowa and its problem-plagued caucuses from the list of early contests.

Lighting a fire

The ever-growing galaxy of Republican contenders worries party leaders who want to steer away from Trump, who openly cheers for more entrants for good reason: He plainly benefits from a glut of candidates.

Just in the past few weeks, former Vice President Mike Pence, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have made moves to join the field. Other long-shot contenders, including business executive Vivek Ramaswamy, have labored to build field operations in South Carolina.

“It will be a proving ground for Republicans to help whittle down the field,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran GOP strategist who advised Romney in 2012 and Jeb Bush in 2016. “But we still don’t even know the field yet. Is Chris Sununu getting in? Is Mike Pence getting in?”

It’s the home-state contenders who may offer the most intrigue, though, since a poor showing in their backyard could be humiliating — and a strong result could be more readily dismissed.

At a stop this week in Goose Creek, a fast-growing Charleston suburb, Scott spoke little of strategy and more about the moral imperative of his quest for the presidency.

“I can’t sit idly by while what I’m watching happen to our nation is happening,” Scott said during a question-and-answer session at a local church. “I have got to get in the fight because fighting is important.”

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, once the governor of South Carolina, lags behind top-tier Republicans in most of the state's polls, though her supporters proudly point to her resilience and network of deep-pocketed donors. “When you underestimate Nikki Haley,” said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chair, “you’re making a mistake.” (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

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Haley lags behind Scott and other top-tier Republicans in most South Carolina polls, though her supporters proudly point to her resilience and network of deep-pocketed donors. Some of Georgia’s most accomplished fundraisers, for instance, are already in the former South Carolina governor’s camp.

Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chair, admitted he initially doubted Haley when she dared to challenge the longest-serving lawmaker in the South Carolina Legislature. Haley’s upset victory in 2004 kicked off her political career.

“When you underestimate Nikki Haley,” Dawson said, “you’re making a mistake.”