Former state Sen. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, speaks at a candidate forum in Greenville for the GOP primary to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

GREENVILLE — Within hours of U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy announcing his retirement from Congress at the end of January, several contenders looking to replace him had already jumped into the race. By the time filing closed at the end of March, the field had swollen to a staggering 13 candidates.

The hyper-crowded race presents a daunting challenge for the candidates as they try to distinguish themselves and make it into an all-but-certain runoff between the top two vote-getters.

Looming large over the contest, as he has in many Republican primaries around the country in 2018, is President Donald Trump. 

Republican voters in the Greenville and Spartanburg area were more skeptical of Trump during the Palmetto State's "First in the South" 2016 presidential primary than in other South Carolina congressional districts. Since winning the race, however, Trump has become a beloved figure among Upstate conservatives. 

All 13 candidates say they support Trump and want to help push his agenda through Congress. They say they want to repeal Obamacare, help the president build his promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and crack down on undocumented immigrants.

"It shows you they know they are definitely campaigning in Trump country," said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University.

But, in terms of personal style, some candidates share more similarities with the brash Republican president than others.

The central question in the race may come down to this: Do Republicans in Greenville and Spartanburg want a classically conservative congressman who will support Trump, or do they want a strident conservative firebrand who embodies Trump?

Trump influence rises


President Donald Trump signals to the press that he will come over to talk, as he leaves the White House for Dallas to address the National Rifle Association, Friday, May 4, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In the 2016 presidential primary, Trump won by a smaller margin in Gowdy's district than in any other congressional district around the state. In the 4th congressional district,  Trump picked up 28 percent of the vote compared with 24 percent each for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Overall, Trump got 32.5 percent of the state's primary voters. Gowdy himself endorsed and campaigned for Rubio.

Many evangelical voters initially struggled to get comfortable with Trump and found a more suitable candidate in Cruz, Vinson said. More establishment, pro-business Republicans rallied behind Rubio.

Now that Trump is the president, the outlook has changed.

"You've still got the same people living here. It is a strong conservative, very religious part of the state," Vinson said. "But now it's not Trump against a bunch of other alternatives who are also Republican. It's Trump against all those people that hate Republicans. So they're happy to defend him."

Multiple candidates have conducted internal campaign polls showing that Trump may have even higher approval among Republicans in the district than Gowdy at this point.

Few areas in the country have benefited more from international trade in recent years than Greenville, where multinational corporations like BMW and Michelin have helped rapidly grow the area's economy.

Yet a recent poll funded by GOPAC, a national Republican group, found that 75 percent of Republican primary voters in the district support Trump's recent tariffs and other protectionist trade moves.

"I think 4th district Republican voters have come to trust President Trump, and that trust goes a long way to make them less adamant about some of their positions." said Greenville GOP chairman Nate Leupp. "We're willing to give him more leeway because we've seen the positive results he's gotten."

Traditional conservatives vs. true Trumpers

With just over a month to go until the first round of primary voting on June 12, the baker's dozen field of candidates are testing out what aspects of Trump voters like best.

On the one hand, Republicans have the option to choose from Lee Bright, a boisterous former state senator who vigorously opposed taking the Confederate flag down from the Statehouse grounds; Pastor Mark Burns, an Easley televangelist who rose to become one of Trump's most prominent black surrogates during the presidential campaign; and James Epley, a Greer businessman who was one of the Trump campaign's first hires in South Carolina.

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At a recent candidate forum, Bright said people who identify as transgender have "got an issue with mental illness." Iowa Congressman Steve King, who has carved out his own profile as one of the most controversial Republicans in Congress, endorsed Bright on Friday. 

On the other hand, several other top tier candidates offer more of the typically polished, conservative personas that 4th district Republicans have opted for in the past.

Timmons yard sign

With just over a month until the 13-candidate GOP primary to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, yard signs are sprouting up all over Greenville and Spartanburg. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

State Rep. Dan Hamilton, a real estate agent who has served in the S.C. House since 2009, graduated from Bob Jones University, the Upstate's premier Christian fundamentalist college, and describes himself as a "constructive conservative."

State Sen. William Timmons, an attorney who unseated a longtime GOP incumbent in the 2016 primary, stems from a dynasty of wealthy, politically active Greenville Republicans and has already kicked in half a million dollars of his own money to begin airing ads.

Former Spartanburg GOP chairman Josh Kimbrell built a following as a local conservative radio talk show host and outraised all the other candidates in the first few weeks of the race.

While Republicans in the district will reject anyone who is adversarial toward Trump, Kimbrell contends they will focus more on which candidates share their conservative values.

"There's only one Donald Trump, and voters will see through people who try to be him," he said. "I don't think he's easily replicable."

Attorney Stephen Brown, a former Greenville GOP chairman, said he wants to position himself as "the voice of reason" in the race and argued that conservatives can fight for their beliefs "in a professional and diplomatic way."

Vinson said she expects traditional conservative candidates who promise to back Trump — "but perhaps with less colorful language and less chaos" — still hold the upper hand in the district.

"However, there are definitely pockets in the Upstate that are happy to embrace all of Trump: The fight, the down and dirty, they love it," Vinson said. "I'm not convinced that's the majority of Republicans in the Upstate. But they may be the ones who are most enthusiastic and show up in the primary."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.