CLEVELAND — South Carolina isn’t a swing state in the 2016 presidential election. In the grand scheme of things, its influence is relatively small, with just 50 delegates to offer to the GOP nominee.
But this week in Cleveland, the Palmetto State delegation to the Republican National Convention doesn’t anticipate feeling insignificant.
South Carolina is expected to be recognized throughout the week for its kingmaker status. As the “First in the South” primary state, South Carolina handed Donald Trump — the presumptive nominee — a decisive victory Feb. 20.
S.C. delegates have been assigned to a hotel in downtown Cleveland that’s a mere few minutes’ walk to the Quicken Loans Arena where the convention is taking place. Some other states have been relegated to lodgings more than an hour away and sure to affected by the expected heavy traffic and security-related road closures.
Future Republican presidential candidate hopefuls including U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are also scheduled to pay visits to the delegation throughout the week. And some South Carolinians are also playing important roles in Trump’s campaign, which could translate into increased exposure at the convention.
Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, the state delegation chairman, in February was the highest-ranking office holder to endorse Trump. He’s expected to be rewarded at the convention with a plum speaking slot on the main stage.
Ed McMullen, a Columbia-based political strategist who was co-chairman of Trump’s South Carolina campaign, is being drawn into the national operation’s inner circle. McMullen accompanied Trump in Washington, D.C., earlier this month for meetings with congressional Republicans. He’s staying in the same hotel as Trump in Cleveland, rather than with his fellow South Carolinians.
“Mr. Trump has said time and again that the South Carolina win was a fundamental part of his getting the nomination, and he is extremely grateful,” McMullen told The Post and Courier. “That is what South Carolina is going to be remembered for: making it clear that Donald Trump was not just a Northeastern candidate, that he appealed to all cross sections of the party.”
What McMaster’s role will be on the main stage has not been announced. He isn’t on the preliminary list of speakers and insiders are tight-lipped on how he’ll factor into the week. But it’s certain that McMaster, who was pivotal to Trump’s success in South Carolina, will be receiving national exposure in Cleveland this week.
The stakes are somewhat high for McMaster, who is in the conversation for governor in 2018. He hitched his wagon to the Trump ticket early and has maintained steadfast support for the candidate, even as he has withstood party-wide criticism for Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. McMaster is also one of a few elected officials prepared to deliver remarks in an unequivocal endorsement of Trump, while other Republicans who have committed to speaking roles plan to touch more broadly on party themes, rather than extoll their controversial presumptive nominee.
In previous years, other state Republicans might have been stealing the show over McMaster. Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott are considered two of the GOP’s “rising stars,” representing the promise of more diversity in the party. Haley is of Indian heritage and Scott is black. They both got top billing at the 2012 convention and will be in Cleveland as honorary co-chairmen of the state delegation. They won’t, however, be giving speeches.
Both have been critical of Trump, Haley especially during her State of the Union rebuttal in which she alluded to the presumptive nominee’s inflammatory rhetoric.
“Chairman Reince Preibus asked if Gov. Haley would speak at the convention a couple weeks ago,” Rob Godfrey, Haley’s deputy chief of staff, said last week. “Gov. Haley was grateful for the invitation and looks forward to attending the convention, but, as we have said before, she has no plans to speak so she declined the opportunity.”
Scott has been more diplomatic in his approach to Trump, saying repeatedly he would support the party’s nominee and that Trump would be a better president than Hillary Clinton. It seems unlikely they wouldn’t have been approached by convention organizers.
South Carolinians have long played important roles in the national Republican Party. In the last half of the 20th century, there was Strom Thurmond, one of the most influential, and controversial, members of the U.S. Senate. In the 1980s, there was Lee Atwater, a national political operative best known for creating the “Southern strategy.”
There were conventions where state delegates stood out. During the contested convention of 1976 between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, party leaders asked then-24-year-old delegate Sherry Shealy Martschink to address the crowd from the main stage. Tasked with explaining why she was opposing a rules change that would have forced Ford to name his vice president before delegates for the nominee, Martschink compared it to playing a game of checkers.
“Some people play (that) you have to take your jump,” she said. “Some people play you don’t have to take your jump. But everyone agrees that you have to agree on the rules before you play the game.”
Martschink, a future state senator, drew boos from vast numbers of Reagan supporters in the state delegation.
“Some of them were angry a few days,” Martschink said recently. “Some of them months, some of them years.”
Former South Carolina U.S. Rep. John Napier recently remembered state party unity at the convention of 1984. At the center of the memory is Roger Milliken, the late billionaire textile magnate from Spartanburg, who became a force in Republican politics.
“I have a vision in my mind,” said Napier, who served in Congress in the early 1980s before becoming a federal judge. “We were standing down on the (convention) floor below the podium, and President Reagan was up on the podium, and we all had little flags. We were next to Roger Milliken, and he was waving his little flag just like I was waving mine. He very well could have been up in the place of honor with President Reagan on the podium. But him standing down there with the South Carolina delegation, a man of stature as Roger Milliken, says something.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.