Election 2020-Pence-South Carolina

Vice President Mike Pence speaks Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, at U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan's annual fundraiser in Anderson, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

ANDERSON — Vice President Mike Pence told an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 conservatives Monday night that he was in South Carolina's Upstate for only one reason: to ensure President Donald Trump wins reelection next year.

"It's time for round two, everybody," Pence said at U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan's 9th annual Faith and Freedom BBQ fundraiser. "It's on."

Pence listed a litany of what he views as the strongest accomplishments of the Trump administration, including low unemployment, increased military spending and a raft of new conservative judges.

But Pence's stated reason for making the trip could not entirely tamp down speculation that 2020 may not be the only election on his mind.

The event marked Pence's third visit this year alone to South Carolina — a state that is unlikely to be particularly competitive in next year's general election but will play a critical early-voting role in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries.

"Any political observer would understand that an incumbent vice president is in good standing for the next open election,"  Greenville GOP chairman Nate Leupp said. "These are the political players of the Upstate. Five years from now, they're not going to forget that Pence came here."

Pence previously came down to visit an "Opportunity Zone" in Columbia, applauding U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., for getting the development tax credits for economically distressed areas included in the 2017 tax bill. And he helped U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., kick-off his reelection campaign with rallies in Myrtle Beach and Greenville.

The possibility of Pence running for president himself could potentially set him on a collision course with South Carolina's own former Gov. Nikki Haley, who remains popular in her home state and has her own ties to Trump as his former ambassador to the United Nations.

"It would be a hard choice," said David Cantrell, 53, a realtor from Anderson, on the possibility of a Pence-Haley primary contest. "I'd have to do some soul-searching on that one."

Some in the crowd Monday night said they would hope to see Pence and Haley on the same ticket. Others said they are skeptical that either of them have planned that far ahead — but they acknowledged it would make sense.

"If Pence is planning to run, it's smart of him to do this," said Pickens County GOP chairman Rick Tate of the vice president's appearance at Duncan's popular fundraiser. "But he's playing in Nikki Haley's sandbox, so to speak."

Touting new trade deal

Another impetus for Pence's S.C. trip was to promote the new trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada that is awaiting congressional approval.

The proposed deal, known as the USMCA, would update but not drastically overhaul the original North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which took effect in 1994 and reduced trade barriers between the three nations.

The Trump administration has made the new trade agreement a top priority and is pushing Congress to approve it when they return from August recess next month, hence Pence's tour of various states to rally public support for it.

Before Pence spoke at Anderson's Sargent Metal Fabricators, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer moderated a panel on the USMCA with three Republican members of Congress from South Carolina: U.S. Reps. William Timmons of Greenville, Ralph Norman of Rock Hill and Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach. 

"This is long overdue," Timmons said of the deal, complaining that "politics is the only thing getting in the way" of ratification. All three said they expect the deal to pass overwhelmingly if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., brings it up for a vote.

Some Democrats have raised concerns about the deal's provisions — or lack thereof — regarding climate, labor, enforcement and pharmaceutical companies. But negotiators on both sides have expressed increasing optimism in recent months that those issues can be addressed.

Pence urged the crowd to tell South Carolina's two Democratic congressmen, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of Columbia and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham of Charleston, to vote for the deal.

In a statement to The Post and Courier, Clyburn said he is continuing to work with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to improve provisions in the agreement.

"I am hopeful that the ongoing discussions will address the remaining concerns that I share with many of my colleagues and make it possible for Congress to approve the deal," Clyburn said.

Cunningham joined several other freshman Democrats in writing a letter to Pelosi last month that praised "frank and productive" talks with the Trump administration and called for a vote on the renegotiated trade deal by the end of the year. 

"We are optimistic that the remaining gaps can be bridged if all parties engage with good faith and pragmatism," the letter said.

Sanford faces hostile crowd

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Not everyone received such a welcoming reception at Duncan's BBQ.

Mark Sanford faced some hostile crowds as the former South Carolina congressman and governor continues to consider challenging Trump in a GOP primary.

Several attendees waved Trump campaign signs in front of Sanford's face, and others yelled, "take a hike" and "go back to Argentina" — a reference to Sanford's 2009 extramarital affair in South America while he was governor.

"He's an idiot," said Jim Wheeler, 71, a retired veteran from Greenwood. "Doesn't he understand that we love Trump? Why would he run?"

Sanford appeared largely unfazed by the reaction, expecting not to be greeted particularly warmly by such a pro-Trump crowd.

An overwhelming majority of Republicans in Sanford's home state say they don't want him to run, according to a recent Post and Courier-Change Research poll.

“He’s a failed congressman, failed governor, and he’s more than welcome to fail at this too,” said Joe Jackson, the Republican National Committee's South Carolina spokesman.

Still, Sanford said he's continuing to consider the idea and wanted to "kick around some ideas" with Upstate conservatives.

"I've been in a lot of different political contests and battles over the years," he said. "Put it his way, I've seen a lot worse and been through a lot worse."

Several other Trump critics held counter events in Anderson during the fundraiser: his leading Democratic opponents. 

Representatives from the campaigns of former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker all came together to speak at Welfare Baptist Church in a "show of unity" against Trump, according to Biden's campaign.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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