COLUMBIA — Back when they were all members of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy — now the most powerful Republican in the chamber — used to relish his regular dinners with South Carolina colleagues Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott.
They talked about their families. They talked about work. Most of all, they talked about politics, and who among them had the most conservative voting record. While he thought it might have been Scott, McCarthy said, Gowdy might have taken the cake.
As the keynote speaker at the South Carolina Republican Party's 55th Annual Silver Elephant fundraising dinner, McCarthy was as gracious as he was complimentary. The GOP leader in the House praised South Carolina's political leaders and the state's power on the national stage. He ribbed his Senate colleague Lindsey Graham, saying the event was one of the few things that could have taken him away from an appearance on the Sean Hannity Show at 9:27 on a Friday night.
Most of all, he prepared South Carolina Republicans for victory in November.
"I'll make this promise to you," McCarthy told the crowd assembled at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center late July 29. "You've got just about an hour flight to get to D.C. And I want you all there because I want you to all see Nancy Pelosi hand me that gavel" in January.
Republicans are surging, said state GOP Chairman Drew McKissick.
Their Elephant Club — the party's inner circle of regular donors — has grown by nearly 250 members over the previous year. Republicans in the Palmetto State have more candidates running in local and countywide races than ever before. The party's largest Statehouse majority appears poised to grow even further in 2023.
"Our party," McKissick said, "is growing."
Republicans are widely projected to take control of the U.S. House in the 2022 midterm elections, aided by soaring levels of inflation and President Joe Biden's low approval ratings. McCarthy is the undisputed frontrunner to lead the party in the next Congress.
However, the GOP has lost ground to Democrats in the weeks since a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court voted to overturn the landmark abortion protections established under the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
Meanwhile, Republican Senate candidates in competitive states like Ohio, Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania have seen themselves become underdogs to their well-funded, Democratic opponents, prompting the National Republican Senate Committee to begin directing resources toward more competitive races in states like Colorado and Washington state.
Democrats, meanwhile, have launched millions of dollars in ad spending attempting to tie Republicans to issues like decreased gun control, banning abortion and undermining entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, which Democrats say McCarthy will lead the charge on should Republicans take control of the House.
Ammar Moussa with the Democratic National Committee lambasted McCarthy's speech before the event started.
"After leading Republicans’ opposition to bills protecting a woman’s right to birth control and the right to access reproductive care, McCarthy’s speech tonight will highlight yet again how GOP extremism is too dangerous for families in South Carolina and across the country,” she said in a statement.
However, McCarthy did not talk about guns, abortion or contraception, which a GOP-sponsored law signed by Gov. Henry McMaster earlier this year made available without a prescription.
In his remarks, Sen. Graham touted the abortion ruling as a major victory for the party while praising Trump as the "most consequential pro-life president" ever.
McMaster gave a full-throated defense of the Second Amendment. State Rep. Russell Fry, who defeated U.S. Rep. Tom Rice last month, said the other party can no longer differentiate between men and women.
McCarthy, meanwhile, urged a return to energy independence and railed against rising rates of inflation, accusing Democrats of instead working to redefine the meaning of the word "recession."
He depicted Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump as figures who projected strength on the international stage against Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Biden he said were worried more about appeasing groups like the Taliban and figures like Vladimir Putin, whose government recently launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
"Putin saw the same thing Hitler saw," McCarthy said. "Putin saw weakness."
McCarthy also offered a vision for the country under Republican leadership. The California Republican earlier this week revealed plans for an ambitious 10-year GOP agenda in Washington D.C. And, on Friday, the leading House Republican had reportedly met with former Trump aide Kellyanne Conway and a number of his top lieutenants over breakfast in D.C. while Trump presumptively prepares for a third presidential run in 2024.
Most important of all in the interim was to not take anything for granted, party leaders said. A lot can change between now and November, and until then, "we've still got a job to do," McKissick said.
Over the next 102 days, McCarthy told the Columbia crowd, he plans to visit 25 states, including Rhode Island and Nevada, in support of more than 100 candidates. And in South Carolina, volunteers are already prepping to work races from the municipal level to the Statehouse.
"I know what you think the polls say," McCarthy said. "You think it's going to be easy. But majorities are won, not earned."