Tea party gears up for 2016 battle in S.C.

Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz touted his conservative agenda at a tea party event on Sunday in Myrtle Beach.

MYRTLE BEACH — They were loud, numerous and enthusiastic, but how relevant will they be heading into the 2016 presidential run?

Hundreds of South Carolina tea partyers crammed into an oceanside resort ballroom here Sunday to hear from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Dr. Ben Carson and other conservative speakers in what many see as the opening salvo of next year’s S.C. presidential primary run.

While President Barack Obama was a constant target of the rhetoric, what was more apparent among many attendees is that the so-called “establishment” candidates — namely Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush — are lagging far back in terms of preference.

“I look at them as being part of the large government machine,” said Columbia-area tea party member Bill Krecker, who said Cruz is among those drawing his early interest. “I don’t think they are working toward limited government.”

“There’s such a frustration from conservatives that the Republican establishment is not conservative enough,” added Richard Summerford, who operates an evangelical mission in Columbia. The eroding of freedoms is among his concerns. He wore a Carson sticker on his shirt.

Both Cruz and Carson delivered strong pro-tea party messages, though neither came out directly on Sunday to announce a White House run.

Carson stuck to a self-reliant theme, saying the individual is responsible for making his way. “Even if Al Sharpton comes along, you are not a victim,” said the retired neurosurgeon.

The closest he got to discussing a 2016 bid was in answering who he’d want in his Cabinet, answering “not yes-men and bootlickers.”

Cruz drew the louder ovations, however, as he called for eliminating Common Core, securing the borders and turning back the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He urged the crowd not to go soft in picking their next White House nominee.

“Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney — if we nominate another candidate in that model, (then) the same people who stayed home in ’08 and ’12 will stay home again,” he said, “and the Democrats will win again in 2016.”

About 500 people heard the speeches. Neither man has formally announced a White House bid, but the field is expected to become clearer in the coming months.

While tea party-aligned voters have been derided by some from the GOP leadership as too idealistic, their grass-roots faithful and other like-minded conservatives are largely credited with swaying South Carolina’s GOP primary turnout and triggering Newt Gingrich’s upset win here three years ago versus Romney.

And, since next February’s S.C. presidential primary is expected to lean more right than center, some say the tea party can again control the momentum in 2016, possibly sparking another upset in the GOP process.

“The tea party is still very relevant despite the performance of establishment Republicans in the 2014 mid-term,” said College of Charleston political scientist Jordan Ragusa, who provided his thoughts on 2016 in advance of this weekend’s Myrtle Beach gathering.

“In South Carolina, the tea party is especially relevant in primaries, where the most conservative Republicans are most likely to turn out,” he added. “Indeed, they could play a major role in selecting the next presidential candidate.”

Exit polls from 2012 said more than one-third of the GOP turnout — 34 percent — strongly supported the tea party movement.

Despite the gathering being overwhelmingly white and gray in the attendee profile, Summerford said he thought the tea party message would attract more minorities and baby boomers in 2016, saying fiscal Washington responsibility and household values are desired by all Americans.

So far, dozens of speakers have appeared or are scheduled to speak at the convention, including S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. Other presidential contenders were invited, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, but declined due to scheduling engagements, according to media reports.

The gathering continues Monday and is scheduled to hear from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and New York real estate celebrity Donald Trump, both of whom are potential presidential players. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford also plans to appear, according to his published schedule.