COLUMBIA — In November, Republicans and Democrats will face off in the midterm elections. But as soon as those contests are over, members of both parties will turn inwards to hash out which direction they will go internally for the final two years of President Donald Trump's first term.
That helps to explain why North Carolina U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, traveled south Friday night to rally more than 800 South Carolina Republicans for the state GOP's 51st annual Silver Elephant fundraising dinner.
If Republicans are able to hold on to their House majority in November — a hypothetical that appears far from certain — Meadows is sure to play a central role in determining whether the party will continue down its current path or take a sharp turn to the right.
A day before Meadows' visit, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — Meadows' predecessor as Freedom Caucus chairman — announced his bid to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Meadows immediately threw his support behind Jordan, his closest friend in Congress. But Ryan's preferred successor is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., a longtime ally viewed as more of an establishment figure.
So in the coming months, Meadows is scheduled to travel around the country, from the Palmetto State to Iowa, Virginia to Texas and beyond.
"It's really about making sure that everybody understands the conservative voice is not dead," Meadows told The Post and Courier backstage before addressing the crowd.
"It's about enforcing a conservative populist message and uniting around a vision that says that the best decisions are made at home," he said.
Meadows' visit also came at the conclusion of a week in which he had filed an impeachment resolution against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — an example that served to highlight the distinctions between the establishment and more conservative wings of the GOP.
Democrats were incensed at the attempt to oust the man overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling. S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson cited it as a reason the state GOP "should be ashamed for bringing someone so lacking in morals to the Palmetto State.”
Ryan rejected the proposal out of hand, and Meadows soon backed down — for now.
Meadows said he reached an agreement with House GOP leaders that if the Department of Justice does not comply with a request for more documents related to the investigation into the 2016 election, they would vote to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress.
"I'm not optimistic, but I'll give them one more chance," Meadows said. "The speaker asked me to do that and we reluctantly agreed."
The aggressive approach Meadows has taken towards the officials leading the Russia probe is one of many traits that has endeared him to Trump, with whom he has developed a close relationship. Meadows even brought Trump on stage Friday night via speakerphone to say hello to the South Carolina crowd.
In the coming years, Meadows said he hopes to expand the Freedom Caucus, with a goal of swelling to 50 members from the current crop of 36, allowing them to exert even more influence over the direction of the party.
Three current South Carolina congressmen are in the Freedom Caucus: U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens; Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill; and Mark Sanford, R-Mount Pleasant, who will be out next year after losing his GOP primary to first-term state lawmaker Katie Arrington of Summerville.
"I can tell you that Congress would not be as conservative as it is without the South Carolina delegation," Meadows told the crowd.
Duncan said he is reserving judgment on the speaker's race for now. But he expressed frustration that Republicans in Congress "haven't lived up to the promises we made to the American people in 2010 when we asked them to give us a governing majority."
"I do think we need more conservatives in the room," Duncan said. "I'm not saying that all the leadership has to be conservative, but I think part of the leadership team needs to be me more conservative than what we've seen in the last eight years that I've been there."