With its grand homes, picturesque churches and history on every corner, Charleston has been a top tourist destination for several years running.
But that hasn’t been enough to lure some of the Republican presidential contenders to the Holy City even once.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who’s a favorite of South Carolina evangelicals, hasn’t spent a day in Charleston, preferring to speak at churches around Columbia or to groups in the Upstate and Pee Dee. The closest Huckabee has come was the Berkeley County GOP convention in April, according to Democracy in Action, which tracks candidate visits.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, who’s surged to the top of the GOP polls, despite questions about stories he’s told about his past, hasn’t been back to Charleston since July 2, when he visited Emanuel AME Church, site of the June 17 mass shooting. He also walked around The Market during the afternoon, shaking hands with tourists.
Candidates from both parties have been splitting their time between the three early voting states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But except for Jeb Bush, Republican candidate stops in the Palmetto State have been more inclined to head to the Midlands and Upstate, the buckle of the state’s Bible Belt. Evangelicals are again expected to dominate the turnout in the Feb. 27 Republican presidential primary as they did in 2012.
Exit polls conducted by Edison Research three years ago estimated that 65 percent of Republican primary voters that year identified themselves as “born-again” or evangelical Christians.
When Republican candidates have come to the Charleston area, it’s to court veterans in what was once a city dependant on the military and particularly the Navy.
“If you look at Republican primary voters in the state, it makes sense to go to Greenville or Columbia to get that ‘red meat’ out there,” said Citadel political scientist Scott Buchanan. “Voters down here tend to be more of an economic conservative, rather than a social conservative.”
Bush fits that description — the former Florida governor hasn’t campaigned on his faith as much as some other candidates and has visited Charleston six times, more than any of the GOP hopefuls. Charleston is also seen as more libertarian in its views than other parts of the state associated with the tea party wing of the GOP.
Front-runner Donald Trump has been to the Charleston area three times, most recently in September when he addressed a convention sponsored by an African-American small business owners organization at the Greater Charleston Business Alliance annual meeting. That meeting resulted in a controversial photo showing an audience of mostly white supporters in a half-empty hall.
Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have each been in Charleston only once, although they’ve made other appearances in South Carolina.
Democracy in Action’s tabulations show that since 2013, the 17 Republicans who began the race have made 170 visits, totaling 224 days in the state, for rallies, forums, press conferences and closed-door meetings with donors or supporters.
Hogan Gidley, senior communications adviser, to Huckabee, insisted that despite Huckabee’s lack of any visits to Charleston, he remains committed to campaigning in the Lowcountry before the primary and that it’s not by design he’s skipped so far.
“It’s a huge media market,” he said of Charleston, adding that Huckabee wants to visit with Charleston Republicans, but “he just can’t be everywhere.”