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Republicans trying to 'out-Trump' each other in SC's top GOP House primary

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Republican congressional hopeful Kathy Landing was answering a question during a telephone town hall when she suddenly began drawing parallels between herself and President Donald Trump.

Like Trump, she said she doesn't need a new career as a politician. Or more perks. The $170,000 congressional paycheck can't compete with what her financial planning career nets her, which was more than $380,000 in 2018, according to financial disclosure reports.

Her business background and life experience, she said, would help solve long-standing problems in Washington, including overreaching special interests and lobbyists.

Connecting the dots, Landing told the nearly 1,000 people on the call, "Someone said, 'You're like a mini-Trump.'"

With six weeks until the June 9 GOP primary, all four of the Republican candidates competing in the Charleston-anchored 1st Congressional District race are going to great lengths to wrap their message around the president.

State Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Daniel Island, is reminding voters of the time she spent working on the Trump campaign in 2016. Bikers for Trump founder Chris Cox claims he is the true Trump ally, pointing to a personal relationship he developed with the president.

Brad Mole SC01 candidate (copy) (copy)

Republican Brad Mole is one of four GOP candidates hoping to challenge U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham for his seat in Congress. Mole said he talks often with prospective voters about President Donald Trump. Brad Mole/Provided

Without splashy TV ads or a large social media following, Bluffton housing official Brad Mole said he is focused on making his pitch to voters one at a time. But he estimates half of the conversations he has are about Trump.

Some see it as smart reflexive politics in a district where Trump won 53 percent of the vote in 2016.

"In Republican primaries, the scene all over the country is 'Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump,' " said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan University of Virginia newsletter covering U.S. campaigns and elections.

"It's just all Trump all the time with these campaigns," Kondik added. "That's true in dark-red districts where the Republican primary is tantamount to election, or in more competitive seats where Republicans are vying for the nomination."

Cues for voters

Overall, the ultimate goal for Republicans is to find the candidate who can knock off first-term Democrat Joe Cunningham in the suburban, coastal district that stretches from Charleston to Berkeley County, Summerville and south to Hilton Head Island.

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Mount Pleasant Councilwoman Kathy Landing addresses supporters at her campaign kickoff event. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Landing, a Mount Pleasant town councilwoman, has sprinkled the president's message into her campaign, even borrowing some of his most famous phrases. She called the findings of a recent poll of 401 likely Republican voters in the district "fake news," since it was conducted by the conservative Club for Growth PAC, which has endorsed Mace.

In a tweet, Landing called it "pathetically predictable" to see a Washington-based special interest group "trying to buy this election" by publishing a poll that claimed its preferred candidate is the one with momentum.

The Trump-like rhetoric also helps illustrate why the four Republican campaigns had a presence at Trump's "Make America Great Again" rally in North Charleston on Feb. 28, and it's also why accusations are flying about who is the true "Trump Republican."

More than almost any other candidate, Mace been signaling her support of the president to voters with visual cues. Her first TV spot featured a clip of Vice President Mike Pence praising her during his Feb. 13 address at The Citadel.

A week later, Landing responded with her own ad saying she is the candidate in the race who will help Trump restore stability.

Landing's pro-Trump pace began from the start of her bid, when she squeezed "Keep America Great" into the end of the speech announcing her candidacy in June. 

In September, Landing raised a copy of Trump's book "The Art of the Deal" into the air while meeting with retirees at Sun City, a 55-and-older community on Hilton Head Island.

Along with TV ads, Mace has been running Facebook ads that feature a 2015 photo of Mace standing next to Trump. Other ads running on the social media platform show an altered image of Mace in the foreground and Trump behind her.

In both visuals, Trump is giving a thumbs-up.

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Mace said it was important to let GOP voters know about her time on the Trump campaign, saying it is just the reality of running on her record.

From September 2015 until August 2016, Mace worked as coalitions director and field director for the campaign in seven states: Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, California and South Carolina. She earned more than $43,000 in 2016, federal reports show.

"I don't name-drop. I'm not here to name-drop. I'm here to win," Mace said.

Bikers for Trump

Cox finds it all frustrating.

He founded Bikers for Trump in 2015 as a supportive group for Trump, who was then viewed as an unconventional Republican presidential candidate. The group would go on to grow in size and evolve in its focus, as its members traveled the country to Trump rallies and events where they acted as an extra layer of security.

Today, it is now a PAC committed to supporting the president's 2020 reelection bid, boasting chapters in every state. Cox said Bikers for Trump was at least 135,000 members strong when he was involved.

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Nancy Mace, a Republican candidate in South Carolina's 1st Congressional District race, waves after Vice President Mike Pence recognized her ahead of his address to The Citadel Corps of Cadets on Feb. 13, 2020, in Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Cox questioned why Mace stopped working for the Trump campaign in the final months leading up to 2016 election.

He called her ties to the administration "smoke and mirrors."

"They should concentrate more on how they want to build a relationship with the president than touting something that they don’t have," Cox said.

Cox has been a frequent guest at the White House during the Trump administration and a visible ally. At at 2017 rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Trump picked Cox out of the crowd and called him, "My man."

He is also the only candidate in the race who has spent campaign dollars at Trump-owned properties, according to federal campaign spending reports.

Filings show Cox shelled out a combined $351, with a majority of it being spent on food and beverages at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. He bristled when asked about it, saying it wasn't an attempt to curry favor.

"It's one of the best networking places in the country with politics," Cox said. "I'm not going to act like I have to backpedal having been in there."

Mace said claims of her inflating her ties with the president are unfounded.

"Quite frankly, if there were any issues, I wouldn't have been invited to meet with the White House political director in January," she said.

Will he endorse?

The president has a track record of picking favorites in Republican primaries, particularly when he wants to send a message to his perceived political enemies. 

He did it here in 2018 when he endorsed state Rep. Katie Arrington over former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford.

This year, Trump has endorsed at least 40 U.S. House candidates nationwide.

Walter Whetsell, one of South Carolina's most experienced Republican consultants, predicts Trump will only endorse if a candidate is already close to clinching the nomination outright.

The Trump campaign declined to comment. 

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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