If the 50 states were 50 people, and you had to rank them by ideology, then South Carolina—which holds the second Republican presidential primary on January 21—would be the Tea Partier of the group. Forty-six percent of South Carolinians identify as conservative. Republicans hold every statewide elected office and control both the state house and senate. The governor, Nikki Haley, was on the vanguard of the Tea Party in the 2010 congressional elections, and her predecessor—the right-wing libertarian Mark Sanford—was among the five governors to reject stimulus funds in 2009.
The state’s congressional delegation is no less conservative. Of its eight members-—two senators and six representatives—only one, Representative James Clyburn, belongs to the Democratic Party. Moreover, the state’s junior Republican senator, Jim DeMint, is a right-wing icon. It’s not just that he is the most conservative member of the Senate, according to National Journal rankings. His Senate Conservatives Fund, a political action committee (PAC) “dedicated to electing strong conservatives to the United States Senate,” raised $9.3 million for the 2010 congressional elections and played a major role in the victories of archconservatives Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and Ron Johnson.
Neighboring North Carolina and Georgia have moved to the middle over the past several years. Given the extent to which South Carolina experienced the same demographic trends—its black and Latino populations have grown significantly since 2000—the state’s enduring conservatism might seem inexplicable. But it’s not. “If I had to explain it,” says Dan Carter, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina and author of From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963–1994, “I’d say it’s a kind of tripod of suburbia, God, and history.”
South Carolina has a long and idiosyncratic history of reactionary politics. Its four delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were fierce defenders of slavery and the rights of wealthy landowners. The delegates’ contributions to the convention included a fugitive slave law, a proposal to limit the Senate to the independently wealthy, and a promise that the Southern states would reject the Constitution if it didn’t endorse slavery. South Carolina would later produce John C. Calhoun—who championed states’ rights, nullification, and slaveholding as a “positive good”—and become the birthplace of secession.
This tradition of reactionary conservatism would continue through the 20th century and remain centered on a “preoccupation with the Negro,” as the political scientist Vladimir Orlando Key Jr. termed it in his classic 1949 treatise, Southern Politics in State and Nation. “The degree to which the race issue influences political life varies almost directly with the Negro proportion of the population,” Key wrote. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the population of blacks in the state dipped below 50 percent; today, African Americans account for 27.9 percent of the state’s residents.
This legacy resides in the suburbs of South Carolina, where more than a third of the state’s population lives. Suburbs exist as something of a haven for white South Carolinians, away from black urban centers and the federal government. “Suburbanization, while we think of it as conservative all over the country, has a particularly intense conservatism in the South,” Carter says. “Government itself comes to be seen as the enemy, because it’s seen as mainly the benefactor of blacks.”
All of this is mixed in with the power and influence of religion in South Carolina. According to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, 45 percent of South Carolinians belong to the evangelical Protestant tradition. Almost nine in ten claim an “absolutely certain” belief in God, and 31 percent say that their religion is “the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” Given the extent to which religious belief is tied to political ideology—more than half of evangelicals say that they are conservative, for example—it’s no surprise that South Carolina is a Tea Party state.
With all of this in mind, you could be forgiven for thinking that South Carolina’s voters are inclined to support the most reactionary Republicans, especially when the stakes are a presidential nomination. But you would be wrong. In the four presidential cycles where there has been a contested primary in South Carolina—1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008—voters have chosen the establishment candidate who went on to win the nomination: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain.
Indeed, since it came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the South Carolina Republican Party has never had an interest in supporting right-wing candidates. After defecting from the Democratic Party over civil rights, Senator Strom Thurmond argued that the state’s whites should direct their political activities toward amassing as much influence as possible in the national GOP. “That notion, that you wanted to have maximum influence on what the national Republicans believed, tended to produce a kind of caution in supporting an insurgent nominee for president,” says Lacy Ford Jr., a historian of the South and Southern politics at the University of South Carolina. “A lot of people outside of South Carolina thought that Bob Dole would be vulnerable in 1996 to such a candidate, but that wasn’t the case at all—he took out Pat Buchanan decisively by beating him in South Carolina.”
That’s what likely drove former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman—known for his moderation on climate change and foreign policy—to spend nearly $300,000 on campaign workers and experienced consultants in the state, mimicking the strategy used by John McCain in 2008. Despite this, Huntsman has been consistently last since entering the race, in large part because he underestimated the power of the Tea Party Republicans who are ascendant in South Carolina politics.
They see this contest as an opportunity for finding a more ideological nominee. “I go to a lot of party meetings and party functions, and it seems like voters are looking for people who match up with their values first and can win last,” says Edward Cousar, second vice chair to the state GOP and head of the Black Republican PAC, a group devoted to supporting Afri-can American candidates in South Carolina and across the country. Karen Floyd, a former state Republican Party chair, agrees. “I think the grassroots effort is crucial in the state of South Carolina, and I think some consultants can help deliver that, but really, it’s all about message. Most people are looking for the person who is most authentic and can help us get out of the situation we’re in.”
The polls bear this out. According to an October survey commissioned by the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women, 73.6 percent of the state’s Republicans think the GOP should nominate a solid conservative on all issues. As if to underscore Cousar’s point, Georgia businessman Herman Cain—the candidate with loads of
conservative bona fides
but scant organization and establishment backing-—spent most of November leading in polls of South Carolina Republicans, until his campaign was derailed by allegations of sexual harassment and a long-term affair. “I sense that there’s more of a desire to make an ideological statement this year, even if it’s a statement that isn’t popular with the nation as a whole,” Ford says. “It’s possible that they don’t even realize it’s unpopular with the nation as a whole.”
But it’s been hard for candidates to distinguish themselves as “most conservative.” Texas Governor Rick Perry averaged just 6.3 percent support in early December, despite his right-wing credentials and his intense focus in the state—he announced his campaign in Charleston, held ten major events in the fall, announced his flat-tax plan in the state, and has raised more money from South Carolina Republicans than any other candidate.
Likewise, former Senator Rick Santorum has spent the most time campaigning in the state—from the beginning of August to the end of November, he held 35 events—but he’s remained in the range of 1 percent to 2 percent since entering the race. At the Palmetto Freedom Forum in September, an event hosted by the American Principles Project, a Tea Party group, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann pledged fealty to every plank of the right-wing agenda, from opposition to the Affordable Care Act (“the foundation for socialized medicine”) to support for a constitutional amendment outlawing all abortions. This hasn’t been enough; in early December, she averaged 4.3 percent support. Put another way, the conservative candidates have given large amounts of time and money to South Carolina Republicans with little effect.
If there’s anyone in South Carolina with the power to anoint a conservative candidate, it’s Senator DeMint. “This race is very fluid,” Cousar says, “but an endorsement from Senator DeMint would put someone over the edge.”
But DeMint, who gave Mitt Romney a surprising seal of approval in 2008, doesn’t plan to endorse. Absent DeMint’s coveted endorsement, it’s likely that the right-wing candidates will continue to fight among themselves for the designation of “most conservative.”
That gets to the irony of this year’s South Carolina primary and of the Republican presidential contest writ large. Republicans want a “true -conservative”—they want someone to oppose “Obama-care,” outlaw abortion, cut taxes, slash social spending, balance the budget, and keep undocumented immigrants out of the country. But they don’t have one such conservative—they have four, now that Cain is out of the race. That could leave Romney as the last candidate standing. In 2008, he placed fourth with 15.1 percent of the vote in the South Carolina primary. Throughout 2011, he’s remained steady with slightly higher support.
If South Carolina conservatives coalesce behind one candidate—most likely Newt Gingrich—they could easily beat Romney. If they don’t, there’s a good chance that they’ll end up in their usual position—providing an unlikely rubber stamp for the Republican establishment.