Yet historically, this state has served as the GOP establishment’s “firewall.” True to form, when it votes on Jan. 21, South Carolina looks like it will be sending yet another relatively moderate frontrunner on the road to the nomination.
Patronage-conscious South Carolinians have always preferred to back a winner. They don’t ask for favors in advance. But they do like to be able to remind an elected official, “I supported you” —which means the official needs to be somebody who can get himself elected in the first place. As one South Carolina leader puts it: “We choose our legislators to raise a ruckus. But when we choose our governors and presidents, we choose people who won’t embarrass us.”
But something else may be going on too. Enthusiasm for the Tea Party may be ebbing in South Carolina as the state confronts economic reality.
To serve big local employers BMW and Michelin, the port of Charleston needs to deepen its harbor. The cost will be huge. Yet the state’s Tea Party senator, Jim DeMint, has opposed federal funding for the Charleston project—even as improvements begin at the competing port of Savannah, Ga. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s less ideological senior senator, Lindsey Graham, has fought hard for federal funds for the Charleston port. And suddenly a lot of South Carolinians are thinking, “Maybe DeMint is taking things a little too far.” That’s a frame of mind that’s very positive for a can-do CEO candidate like Mitt Romney—and not so positive for a Rick Santorum or a Ron Paul.
Mitt Romney has a high-profile supporter in the South Carolina Republican primary: Gov. Nikki Haley. For all her visibility, however, she may no longer be the force she was when she rode to power on Tea Party enthusiasm in 2010. South Carolina’s economy remains one of the weakest in the nation. Hard-pressed South Carolinians did not appreciate their governor’s costly trade mission to Europe in June 2011 (price tag: $127,000). A governor who campaigned on promises of transparency has instead run one of the most secretive administrations of any state, even using private email accounts to avoid creating publicly accessible records. The result: in ultra-red-state South Carolina, Haley’s approval rating has dipped to 34.6 percent, lower than that of President Obama.
Pundits often make the point: South Carolina is a much more racially diverse state than Iowa or New Hampshire. Unless, that is, you’re watching the Republican primaries. Then you don’t see much racial diversity until Florida on Jan. 31.