COLUMBIA — Republicans are used to hogging the political limelight in South Carolina.
The party controls both chambers in the Statehouse and seven of the state’s nine congressional seats. They haven’t lost a statewide election in more than a decade. Who wields power in the state is often decided by GOP primaries.
But so far in 2019, it’s South Carolina Democrats who have hoarded much of the attention.
South Carolina's status as a pivotal early voting primary state has made it a popular destination for the more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates. President Donald Trump's last political trip to the state came more than a year ago to rally for Gov. Henry McMaster's campaign, and Trump is not expected to return anytime soon.
Democratic primary voters in South Carolina are being relentlessly probed by campaigns and national media outlets to ascertain their political opinions. The S.C. GOP is set to decide this fall whether they will even bother to spend the money needed to hold their own presidential primary given Trump’s all-but-certain victory.
A nationally televised S.C. Democratic Party Convention last month attracted almost the entire presidential field, hundreds of national reporters and thousands of onlookers to a packed Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center — a stark contrast to the S.C. GOP’s relatively standard convention this year that dealt mostly with internal party business at Lexington’s River Bluff High School.
It’s an unusual state of affairs in a GOP-controlled state. But Republican officials here say they’re staying plenty busy in the background while the Democratic contest plays out.
"I’m not twiddling my thumbs," said S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick.
GOP counter messaging
First and foremost, Republicans are using the Democratic primary to offer a contrast and try to gin up enthusiasm on their own side of the aisle.
The Republican National Committee has dispatched a communications staffer to the state to offer counter messaging for each Democratic presidential candidate visit, often arguing that the candidates' efforts to endear themselves to the Democratic base will only alienate the broader general electorate.
“We get to play an important role,” McKissick said. “We get to spend the year pointing out how radical and crazy national Democratic candidates are and setting the narrative for whoever may eventually come out of South Carolina and their Democratic primary system.”
The party has focused much of its digital fundraising efforts on the Democratic presidential primary, too. A recent plea for dollars piggybacked off the first Democratic debates of the cycle.
“After what we just witnessed in the Democrats’ first debate, one thing is clear," McKissick wrote in a fundraising email to S.C. Republicans. "We can’t afford to have a single Palmetto State conservative sitting on the sidelines."
The Republicans’ 2019 efforts follow a familiar playbook from the last time the party found itself in this situation.
Back in 2003 and 2004, then-President George W. Bush was sailing to re-nomination while a bevy of Democratic contenders — including John Kerry, John Edwards, Al Sharpton, Wesley Clark and Howard Dean — were blitzing South Carolina to try to win the primary.
“We were gearing up as a party to accentuate all of the outrageousness, the attacks and mistakes that happen in political primaries,” said Katon Dawson, who was S.C. GOP chairman at the time.
Even with Republican advantages here, Dawson said the party can't take South Carolina for granted and will need to keep its base engaged as Democrats pour money into the state.
The S.C. GOP held 12 "MAGA Meet Up" parties across the state last month to watch Trump formally launch his reelection campaign, and the party said that more than 500 supporters and activists attended. They will hold their annual Silver Elephant fundraising gala in Columbia later this year.
“(The Democratic primary) can really start driving up turnout on your side because obviously Republicans see a Democratic debate and it’s not hard to find something Republicans don’t want, don’t like or are scared of,” Dawson said. "So it's an informational process into your base continually to help your nominee."
Focus on down-ballot
The lack of presidential business also gives Republicans more time and resources to focus on their highest priority: taking back the Lowcountry’s 1st Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston became the first Democrat in four decades to win the seat last year, and he has already drawn several GOP opponents.
A competitive GOP primary for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, once viewed as a serious possibility that could have drawn media interest, is now unlikely given his surge in popularity among Republicans.
But Graham could face an unusually formidable Democratic challenge from Jaime Harrison, a former S.C. Democratic Party chairman who raised $1.5 million over the past three months, more than any Democratic Senate challenger ever in the Palmetto State.
Democrats have also set their sights on winning more GOP-held seats in the state Senate, which could force Republicans to defend their majority more vigorously.
McKissick said the benefit for Republicans of having a Democratic presidential primary is they can "wrap those national candidates around the neck" of local Democratic candidates, who often try to avoid talking about polarizing national political issues in favor of more broadly shared local concerns.
“They’re all going to have to answer for these national Democrats that are parading through South Carolina for the next year and let us know whether or not they agree with their radical positions because voters here deserve to know,” McKissick said.