If you want to keep up with the current position of South Carolina Republicans, invest in a Doppler radar.
Because those folks are all over the map.
Since the November election, the party’s been in disarray. Meetings of local activists are contentious, elected officials make often-contradictory statements. The election was stolen; Joe Biden was the legitimate winner. The riot at the U.S. Capitol is former President Donald Trump’s legacy; it was Nancy Pelosi’s or antifa’s fault.
These folks have flip-flopped so much Folly Beach would drop them on New Year’s Eve.
The intramural backlash has been harsh, similar to what we’ve seen in state parties across the country. The South Carolina GOP censured one congressman, and several county-level operatives have threatened the same for Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott (who allegedly haven’t done enough for Trump).
Some Charleston Republicans even suggested recruiting a 2022 primary challenger for new U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace.
GOP leaders have tried to minimize the dissension, but political scientists say this is what it looks like when a party is at war with itself.
• After the Jan. 6 riot, Graham told Fox News: “It breaks my heart that my friend ... would allow yesterday to happen. When it comes to accountability, the president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution.”
• But Graham voted against convicting Trump in his impeachment trial this past weekend, then blasted Mitch McConnell for saying pretty much the same thing he said on Fox.
• Mace offered a harrowing account of the riot, but then attacked U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for telling a story that was remarkably consistent with hers.
• And in the past month, Nikki Haley — former governor, United Nations ambassador and future presidential hopeful — has shifted gears three times. Last week, she declared Trump’s political career over, arguing he led the party down a path he shouldn’t have, “and we shouldn’t have followed him.”
That came after telling Trump critics to give him a break and “move on” — a course-correction that followed tepid reviews for a speech to party leaders in which Haley predicted Trump would be “judged harshly by history.”
So, kinda like a map of Bugs Bunny traveling cross-country.
Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political scientist, says he’s been bombarded with messages asking “what’s going on with Lindsey?” He says this is all about Republicans trying to avoid primary challenges from the right.
Mace was getting good press for fairly blunt criticism of her own party, but then local Republicans started talking about a censure … or simply recruiting a replacement. So Mace piped down and, for good measure, attacked perennial Fox News villain AOC on a confusing, if not hypocritical, technicality.
Both are now fundraising off the spat, a sign that at least some things never change. Knotts says Mace realizes she must appeal to conservatives and moderates to hold the 1st District.
“She has to win college-educated Mount Pleasant voters,” he says. “Watching her position herself is going to be interesting. There’s this tension with primary voters, and I think no one knows for sure how it’s going to end. Even if Trump’s support is down to 60(%) or 70% in the party, that’s still the primary.”
What’s happening here appears pretty straightforward: Most rational Republicans assumed Trump’s political career was over after he invited his supporters to D.C. and some of them beat police officers — even killed one.
But when it became clear that attacking the Capitol, or building a gallows to hang Mike Pence, wasn’t a deal-breaker, they quickly had to recalculate.
Haley’s waffling is a different calculus; she’s focused on a presidential bid. Longtime South Carolina political scientist and GOP activist Neal Thigpen says Haley has to reach a more diverse electorate, which is why she threw Trump under the bus in a recent Politico interview.
“Her statements, if she sticks to her most recent strategy, are for national consumption,” Thigpen says.
But don’t expect any more vacillation from state-level pols. Thigpen says they’ve learned nothing will change at least until after the 2022 elections. The state GOP, from executive committee members down to county chairmen, are overwhelmingly Trump supporters.
“The party is at war with itself, and it’s Trump’s fault,” Thigpen says. “Any of the statewide guys would really be sticking their neck out to go against him, because there’s a lot of Trumpites out in the woods.”
As some South Carolina Republicans learned when they ran head-first into the trees.