ANDERSON — Sweet barbecue pulled pork, barbershop gospel, a Donald Trump-emblazoned sombrero and gubernatorial candidates out in abundance.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan’s Faith and Freedom barbecue returned with flair for a seventh time Monday night in what has become the largest annual gathering of conservatives in South Carolina. About 1,000 Republicans descended on the Anderson Civic Center for a night of good food, prayer and a heaping dollop of politicking.
With no presidential primary on the horizon, the electoral focus for the evening was centered on the 2018 race for the Governor’s Mansion, in what has already become a crowded GOP field for the June primary.
Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson pharmacy owner, welcomed Duncan — his own congressman — “back from the swamp.”
Bryant, who entered the race last month and basked in his hometown crowd Monday night, noted on conservative talk radio earlier in the evening that Duncan “doesn’t have many friends in Washington, but he’s got a lot back home.”
Gov. Henry McMaster took to the stage to tout his longtime support for President Donald Trump, proudly noting that he was the first politician to endorse the then-insurgent candidate. But McMaster, a Columbia attorney, earned his loudest ovation when he raised his executive order from last week restricting public funds toward abortion services.
Meanwhile, former director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, Catherine Templeton of Charleston, mingled with the conservative crowd. State Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort attorney who is expected to announce his own decision soon, chatted with county GOP chairs.
At times the competing candidates could be seen sparking friendly conversation with each other and introducing their respective campaign teams.
"I've been friends with Henry for 20 years and nothing's going to change that,” said Bryant of the incumbent governor.
Though Duncan was wary to pick a favorite candidate, insisting his focus remains on his own political career, he appeared gratified to see his annual event become a key networking opportunity for South Carolina Republicans.
“This event has evolved into the largest conservative meeting, so it doesn’t surprise me gubernatorial hopefuls would be here,” said Duncan, who lives in Laurens. The gathering also served as a Duncan fundraiser.
The night also marked a year since Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County had addressed the crowd, and the controversial immigration hardliner was back in the headlines.
Trump pardoned Arpaio on Friday night from his conviction of criminal contempt for defying a court order in a racial profiling case, a move that drew criticism from civil rights groups and some Republicans but delighted Trump’s base. In Anderson, the move was greeted with the same satisfaction as many of Trump’s other establishment-defying moves.
“It speaks to President Trump’s awareness of just how much on people’s radar the issue of illegal immigration is,” Davis said. “It’s a very bold and dramatic way to demonstrate to the American people just how important this issue is.”
Duncan said Arpaio remains a popular figure among the crowd.
“A lot of people, me included, thought it was a miscarriage of justice and he was targeted by the Justice Department,” Duncan said, adding, as Trump had, that Arpaio is an 85-year-old veteran. “He was trying to enforce laws.”
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst headlined the event but the Iowa Republican, considered a future presidential hopeful, detached much of her remarks from the political quibbles of the day, focusing on broad themes of service and patriotism.
Without a successful health care bill to promote, Ernst heaped praise on the “greatest accomplishment” of confirming Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a message that many Republican senators have emphasized over August recess.
The legislative gridlock had done little to deter the Trump enthusiasm of the Anderson crowd.
“Thank God for Donald J. Trump,” Ernst said.