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South Carolina's GOP, trade and military presence has produced key players in Trump administration

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John A. Carlos II

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson held a press conference at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, Eastover October 27, 2017. The two South Carolina lawmakers have built reputations as foreign policy specialists. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

An ex-South Carolina municipal judge from Springdale has risen through the ranks of congressional foreign policy panels.

An Air Force officer from Seneca regularly bends the president's ear on national security. 

A former governor from Bamberg represents the U.S. at the United Nations, while another former governor from Society Hill leads the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

Meanwhile, a political strategist from Columbia was just sworn in as ambassador to Switzerland, and a career foreign service officer from North Augusta is the emissary in Guyana.

Despite South Carolina's relatively small size, the Palmetto State has produced several key figures serving throughout the nation's foreign policy apparatus in President Donald Trump's administration. 

Part of the explanation is that a Republican administration naturally leads to more high-profile roles for Republican politicians — of which there are plenty in a consistently red state like South Carolina.

"Just the fact that Trump is president allows South Carolina politicians to be involved in foreign policy in a way that they were not under an Obama administration," said Scott Buchanan, a political science professor at The Citadel. 

But two other factors also helped produce the outward-looking focus of many South Carolina politicians: the state's heavy reliance on international trade and its significant presence of military installations and veteran communities.

The S.C Department of Commerce proudly touts that more than 131,900 South Carolinians are employed by foreign-affiliated companies; that's 7 percent of the state’s private workforce — a much higher figure than the national average. Ocean carriers carry cargo between the Port of Charleston and more than 150 countries around the world.

From the S.C. GOP to the globe

When Matt Moore ended his run as chairman of the South Carolina GOP in 2017, he moved into a leadership role at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a D.C.-based group that brings together businesses and nonprofits to advocate for increased diplomacy.

He became interested in expanding his horizons after a trip to Africa with the group in 2014. The plane he flew on was manufactured in South Carolina, and when he got there he saw a Greenville-made General Electric turbine waiting in a port to be installed.

"That drove home the importance of what we do here in South Carolina but also our efforts overseas," Moore said.

When former Gov. Nikki Haley was tapped to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, her handling of trade issues, including seven overseas trade missions, comprised most of her limited foreign policy experience.

With an unusually reserved secretary of state in Rex Tillerson, Haley has since emerged as one of the most visible faces of the Trump administration's foreign policy despite her traditionally less critical position.

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Haley has brought some of the same strategies she used to build relationships in the Statehouse to the UN, hosting a "thank you party" this week exclusively for ambassadors who did not support a resolution condemning Trump's move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

She handpicked one of her predecessors from the governor's office, David Beasley, to head up the World Food Programme, the humanitarian food-assistance branch of the UN based in Rome that focuses on addressing hunger issues.

In Congress, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson, the ex-municipal judge, have built reputations as national security specialists and have risen through the ranks of foreign policy committees by spending decades on Capitol Hill. Both spent time in uniform, Graham as an Air Force officer and judge advocate, and Wilson in the U.S. Army Reserve and S.C. National Guard.

The military experience helps, but Wilson, R-Lexington, said his interest in international issues was formed at an earlier stage in life.

"For me, it was because I grew up in Charleston, which is really an international city," Wilson said. He lived next to the Danish consulate, and his family's work with Esso Standard Oil meant executives from Venezuela, India and China were often coming through.

One of few members of Congress to serve on both the armed services and foreign affairs committees, Wilson finds himself in the rare position of having a hand in both diplomatic and military policy-making.  

Friend of Israel

Even in the state Legislature, an arena that rarely lends itself to international issues, state Rep. Alan Clemmons has developed a profile as one of the nation's foremost pro-Israel advocates.

The Myrtle Beach Republican makes regular trips to the Middle East country, has met with many Israeli leaders and has used the S.C. Statehouse as a testing ground for pro-Israel legislation that has been replicated elsewhere.

As an early presidential primary state, South Carolina is often where candidates articulate their foreign policy platforms. During the 2016 campaign, GOP candidates pitched their foreign policy credentials to voters here, which political strategists say reflects interest shown by veteran voters.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., laid out his defense platform on the aircraft carrier Yorktown at Patriots Point. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., focused much of his pitch to South Carolinians on hawkish foreign policy views.

In addition to Haley, Trump picked his 2016 South Carolina campaign chairman, Ed McMullen, to serve as ambassador to Switzerland. McMullen, a Columbia-based communications strategist, was sworn-in last month. 

Meanwhile, North Augusta native Perry Holloway, who used to manage Radio Shack stores in South Carolina before joining the foreign service decades ago, has continued in his role as ambassador to Guyana, where he has served since 2015.

"The president’s very smart to rely on proven South Carolina leaders," Moore said. "This president is very focused on using all the tools of America’s military and diplomatic power, and South Carolina has a lot of experts in those areas."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.