They find themselves divided between their support for Trump, their desire for a competitive nomination battle in the state and their allegiance to two South Carolina natives, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, who have taken steps to challenge Trump for the nomination. People close to them say both are seriously considering a bid, and Haley is expected to make an announcement in the coming weeks, South Carolina operatives said.
The result foreshadowed an early primary state run for Trump — with an expected endorsement from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R.C.) and an endorsement from Gov. Henry McMaster (R) — that positioned the former president as a serious challenger, but fell short to demonstrate the dominance it once enjoyed.
“Nikki Haley is probably our first South Carolinian since we voted for George Washington who actually had a shot at being president of the United States,” said former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Caton Dawson, a supporter of the former governor, explaining the challenge . “And I think the Trump people will come across this story.”
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Dave Wilson, president of the Palmetto Family Council, an influential evangelical group, said “there is more than a little softening” of Trump’s support in South Carolina, saying many have been put off by some of his recent comments, including questioning of the loyalty of evangelical voters. Wilson said many evangelicals in the state want to wait and see who enters the race.
“There are a lot of people who recognize the importance of a Trump presidency who are stepping back and saying, ‘Is there another standard-bearer for the party and the issues we believe in?’ it created momentum,” he said.
State Party Chairman Drew McKissick will not attend Trump’s Jan. 28 event because of next week’s RNC meeting in California, and Congressman Ralph Norman (RS.C.), a close ally of both Trump and Haley, has previously a Jan. 28 commitment that he may not be able to break to attend the rally, according to their advisers. Hope Walker, the state party’s executive director, recently turned down a job offer from the Trump campaign because she decided to stay in her role for the cycle.
Several other state lawmakers also told Trump’s team they wouldn’t be able to make it, according to people familiar with the conversations who, like others for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Graham is trying to drum up support for Trump, three people familiar with the calls said, telling people they should tune in because he is likely to be the nominee.
“The Trump campaign is trying to consolidate support. But I don’t think it’s going to be as fast as they think,” said one state lawmaker who has so far resisted the Trump team’s calls and heard murmurs of support from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “Right now, my constituents are as excited about Ron DeSantis as they are about Donald Trump, if not more so.”
Stephen Cheng, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, said the former president would show strong support at the event. “President Trump is going to South Carolina to introduce his leadership team, which will show the significant support he has across the state, from local leaders to elected officials,” he said.
The event — which will be held at the State House — also faces some logistical hurdles, people familiar with the planning said.
Trump’s likely rivals for the nomination are also playing their part to prevent an early Trump dominance. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ran Facebook ads in the state this year promising to help “principled conservatives in South Carolina restore the American Dream!” Former Vice President Mike Pence toured South Carolina last month, capping a year in which he worked closely with church leaders in the state.
Perhaps the most aggressive was Haley, who worked for Trump as the US ambassador to the United Nations. She gathered more than 30 state lawmakers, including newly elected leaders she didn’t know during her time as governor, for a breakfast in Columbia earlier this month. She was answering questions about her time at the United Nations and her views on China, according to people familiar with the comments. Days later, she told Fox News that she was seriously considering announcing a presidential campaign, boasting, “I’ve never lost a race.”
“She already has an established donor network and she’s familiar with a lot of the activists and she’s very appreciative of all those people, but she’s not taking South Carolina for granted,” said a state Republican. “She works there in case she decides to run.”
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Haley’s advocacy group, Stand for America, recently hired Susan Youngblood Lane, a digital strategist for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), according to an email Lane sent to colleagues. Lexington, South Carolina, consultant Walter Wetsel is expected to join her campaign if she runs. But in a sign of how competitive the race for talent has become, Tim Chapman, executive director of Stand for America, told The Associated Press on Friday that he was leaving to join Pence’s team.
“There’s so much shifting of deckchairs right now between campaigns,” the state lawmaker said.
Pence and Pompeo have visited the state frequently, operatives and local politicians said. “We’ve seen Mike Pence, we’ve seen Mike Pompeo a few times — I understand why Ron DeSantis hasn’t left Florida. He still needs to be governor. But there comes a time to get in your cars, on your planes and come to South Carolina,” Wilson said.
Graham and Rep. Russell Frye (R.C.), who owed his election last year in large part to Trump’s endorsement, have joined at least two junior members of the Trump team in campaigning in the state, systematically calling Republican lawmakers in recent two weeks. A person familiar with the effort said Graham was twisting the arms of congressmen who supported Trump last time. An Iowa political operative, Alex Latcham, also called to recruit people to Trump’s event, according to a person who received the call.
Trump’s last major event in the state, a spring rally in Florence, drew thousands of supporters, and an invitation to a pre-rally reception boasted 36 co-chairs — a show of strength that included the likes of McKissick, Scott and Norman, who are not expected to be with Trump at his event. Trump has chosen a much smaller venue this time, inside the State House in Columbia, which is expected to hold about 500 people.
Trump has been deliberately hiring since announcing his 2024 bid in November, depending on a core group of senior advisers, including longtime adviser Susie Wiles, veteran strategist Chris LaCivita and Brian Jack, a former White House policy director who most recently worked for House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The team has been in no rush to hire new people, in part because the former president has been unable to use the funds he raised during the midterm elections to benefit his presidential campaign.
Trump’s team has also been unable to raise funds for his presidential campaign on Facebook, a major source of campaign contributions in his previous races, because of the ban the social network imposed on him for his role in the violence at the US Capitol on January 6. 2021 Trump’s lawyer sent a letter last week to Facebook demanding a refund. Facebook officials promised a decision on Trump’s reinstatement in the coming weeks.
Trump is also considering adding a second event in New Hampshire on the same day as Saturday’s event, according to a person familiar with the planning, to plant his flag in that state, where Gov. Chris Sununu (R), a Trump critic, is exploring his own your presidential campaign. “He’s frustrated with these stories and the narrative, he’s lazy,” this person said.
Republican consultants in South Carolina agree that Trump is off to a strong start, especially if many candidates remain in the race after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.
“The two-way race is competitive for Trump. And in a crowded race, Trump has a significant advantage,” said a Republican who reviewed the state’s latest data. “There’s only a fraction of Trump voters that Trump gets no matter what.”
But with more than a year to go before the South Carolina primary, a lot could happen to change the dynamics of the race. Republican consultants in the state say Trump is unlikely to dissuade rivals with his event on Saturday.
“While I’m sure it will be a show of strength, I don’t think he’s going to change the calculus of the candidacy in terms of sitting governors, former governors or sitting members of Congress,” said Rob Godfrey, a prominent South Carolina consultant. , who worked for Haley, McMaster and others.
Isaac Arnsdorff contributed to this report.