WASHINGTON — Had things worked out differently this year, South Carolina might have had a presidential nominee in U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and a vice presidential contender in Gov. Nikki Haley.
The Palmetto State’s next chance to see one of its own in the national spotlight could be Matt Moore.
The South Carolina Republican Party chairman is being floated as a possible candidate to run the Republican National Committee in 2017, when current chairman Reince Priebus is expected to step down. Moore’s proponents gush over the 33-year-old operative, whose youth and energy could attract a new generation of voters the party desperately needs.
“I’ve seen firsthand his confidence, his professionalism, his eye for detail and his political savvy,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who while governor gave Moore his first job in state politics.
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he wasn’t surprised to hear people talk about Moore, his former state director, as ready for bigger things. And to whatever extent Moore’s handling of the recent South Carolina GOP presidential primary became an assessment of his savvy, supporters say he passed the test.
“The national exposure reflected well on South Carolina, reflected on the state party and its chairman,” said Jonathan Hoffman, executive committeeman of the Charleston County Republican Party. “And if you look at who is going to be electing the RNC chairman, it’s men and women around the country who follow this very closely. They know which states are well-run and which aren’t.”
Two of those people are Cindy Costa and Glenn McCall, South Carolina’s designated RNC committee members who have deep ties to the national GOP operation. Costa has been a member of the RNC for nearly two decades, while McCall, an RNC member since 2008, is a vice chairman for the party convention this year. McCall said Moore was developing good relationships with RNC members — just the sort of trait that College of Charleston political science professor Gibbs Knotts said carries well on a national resume.
“They have to be more neutral, they have to have the organizational skills to get people together,” Knotts said.
The RNC chairman, whose job is to raise money, recruit candidates, drive strategy and make media appearances, gets picked in one of two ways.
When a Republican is in the White House, it’s the president’s prerogative to pick the national party figurehead. In recent years, GOP presidents have rewarded loyal allies with the plum assignment. So while it’s conceivable Moore could be anointed by a President Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich or someone else, the lack of any strong ties make that unlikely.
If a Democrat is president, the RNC’s 168 members have to hold an election. The field can get diverse, with members of Congress, political strategists, state party chairs and even individuals with only tangential connections to the establishment in the mix. This would be the more likely scenario in which Moore could launch a bid, the second time in recent history a South Carolinian has been in the running. Ex-S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson was a candidate in 2009, narrowly losing to Michael Steele.
Moore told The Post and Courier last week he hoped this would be “a moot point in November.”
“I want to see a Republican sworn in in January 2017 and select the next RNC chairman,” Moore said, adding that while it was “flattering” to be approached by fellow RNC members about the chairmanship, he wasn’t actively laying the groundwork for a run.
There’s also a lot that can happen between now and November that could change the calculus for Moore, the election outcome notwithstanding.
With repeated caveats that he’s not running to succeed Priebus, Moore was at least willing to explain why people might think he’d be good for the job. As state chairman since 2013, he measures his success in having presided over the party at a time when the GOP holds the majority in the state Legislature and eight of the nine seats in Congress. He’s a frequent guest on national news shows and he’s used technology and data to grow party successes locally.
“I am just 33 years old and aim to represent a new generation in Republican politics,” Moore said. “I want to build a Republican Party that looks like America and embodies the great diversity of America, so I’ve encouraged candidates from the lowest level to the very highest to use inclusive rhetoric. There are ways to make your political points without turning people off, and frankly at this time this presidential election has been too heated and turned some voters off.”
Moore made national headlines earlier this year when he slammed conservative pundit Ann Coulter for saying that Trump should “deport” Haley, whose parents are from India. He later condemned Trump, who ended up winning the South Carolina primary, for saying the United States should impose a ban on Muslim immigrants.
He is certainly promoting a kinder, gentler Republican Party than the one represented by Lee Atwater, the last South Carolina Republican to run the RNC and who defined the state’s tradition of political “dirty tricks.”
But while Moore is not alone in talking about the need to grow the party tent, 2016 presidential candidates didn’t succeed in selling that message to voters. It’s unclear how the GOP can go from marginalizing those voices — like those of Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or even Graham — to putting someone like Moore at the helm.
Moore drew plaudits for overseeing a political circus in South Carolina in the final weeks before the GOP presidential primary. His next test will be in Cleveland in July, when he attends his first national convention as state party chairman. The convention is also expected to be contested, meaning if a presidential nominee is not selected during the first round of voting the state’s 50 delegates will no longer be bound to the count leader, which to date is Trump, on the second round.
In that event, Moore said his job would be “to keep our delegation unified. Even if there’s disagreement, it can be constructive disagreement so that we can go on and have dinner peacefully together.”
He continued, “I am committed to our state party being fair, honest and transparent throughout this process. I see that as my main role, I don’t see it as influencing delegates in certain ways for or against certain candidates.”
He is, however, a voting delegate, and Moore conceded he would be casting his possible second ballot vote based on a candidate’s “general electability, commitment to our party’s platform and who is chosen as the vice presidential candidate. Those three things are important for delegates to consider.”
Ultimately, anyone can be an even-keeled and honest broker and still get caught in the snares of a delicate situation. Even now there are questions about whether Trump violated a requirement to get on the S.C. GOP primary ballot, a pledge to support the eventual GOP nominee whoever it might be. With Trump starting to equivocate on that pledge, Moore could be pressured to take a stand, alienating one side or the other.
Moore also has to avert drama at home. A week ago he was pulled into some of the controversy surrounding fellow Republican S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s firing of the special prosecutor probing possible Statehouse wrongdoing. Emails and text messages surfaced indicating a top Wilson aide and other party veterans had tried to get Moore to make inflammatory statements surrounding the dismissed prosecutor, Democratic 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe, to score political points. All signs point to Moore declining to get involved.
Having a clear and taint-free path to running for RNC chairman could end up being necessary for Moore. He isn’t term-limited at the state party level, but one former South Carolina operative now working in Washington, suggested that Moore’s connections, while solid, were strictly political; he came to the state from his home in Georgia only within the past several years and lacks the roots that perhaps are necessary to navigate the intraparty warfare expected in the 2018 race for governor.
Sanford scoffed at that thinking. “The last time I checked,” he said, “a lot of people in South Carolina are not from South Carolina.”
Circumstances notwithstanding, Moore might be convinced his political appetite is best suited for the national stage. But he’s not ready to go there yet.
“I love serving as chairman, I believe it’s the best job in South Carolina,” he said. “I want to do my best every day and let the chips fall where they may. I think this whole discussion is premature.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.