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President Donald Trump appears at a Gov. Henry McMaster campaign event at Airport High School in Cayce near Columbia, June 25, 2018. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

GREENVILLE — Allan Quinn no longer wears his "Make America Great Again" hat.

Instead, as President Donald Trump approaches the second anniversary of his electoral victory, the retired Oconee nuclear station manager and Army veteran has traded it out for a new bright red cap with a different message: "Keep America Great."

"I think people are finally realizing the good things President Trump has done," Quinn said after a recent Greenville GOP forum.

"And now he's getting behind candidates that want to do the same thing," he added. "Any time Trump says something positive about you, it's good for you."

South Carolina Democrats, to put it mildly, disagree.

Just a few hours after the GOP meeting, Democrats gathered a few blocks away in downtown Greenville for their weekly "Tell Them Trump Tuesday" protests. The group has been convening there with signs since January 2017 when Trump took office.

"I think the Democratic side has been more outraged for longer, and we have more fuel for our fire on a daily basis when something else happens that we just can’t believe," said Lee Turner who decided to run for Congress last year in part due to concerns about the president.

Though she fell short in the Democratic primary to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, she said Trump has had a "huge impact" on energizing the opposition.

While Republicans and Democrats differ in their views on Trump, on this general point they do agree: The midterm elections — less than four weeks away in South Carolina — in many ways is about Trump and voters' reactions to him in a season where the president remains an unavoidable presence.

He will affect the governor's race, where Republican incumbent Henry McMaster touts his friendship, and the coastal 1st Congressional District, where Republican Katie Arrington has declared the GOP "is the party of Donald J. Trump."

Their respective opponents — James Smith for governor and Joe Cunningham for Congress — have opted not to campaign actively against the president. That hasn't stopped the state Democratic Party from picking up the slack.

"We have a president that every single news station at every single moment of the day is focused on," said party Chairman Trav Robertson. "He's motivating his base, but he appears to be turning off independent and swing voters, and he's energizing Democrats."

The Trump foot soldiers

To Don Bowne, a Myrtle Beach resident who created a group called Red Hats 4 Trump, the fight to defend Trump is far from over, and South Carolina's electoral history offers no guarantees.

That's the same sentiment in Beaufort County where GOP Chairwoman Sherri Zedd said of Democrats in a recent interview, "Those guys on the other side are hungry. We've got to work our derrières off from now until November."

This perceived urgency is why Bowne said he has personally bought and distributed more than 550 "Make America Great Again" hats since 2015. He ballparks his financial investment on the hats as somewhere around $4,000.

"This election is going to mean more than any presidential election or any election in our lifetime," the 71-year-old said. "And can you believe it? It's a midterm."

Trump's endorsement of McMaster helped the incumbent fend off four GOP primary challengers. Now, McMaster is hoping the support can push him across the finish line in the general election, too.

While Trump may face opposition in some states, McMaster argued that South Carolina is different, pointing to the rapturous reception Trump has received each time he's visited.

"People here have great respect for him, they love him, and he tells them all the time in these words that 'I love South Carolina,'" McMaster said. "Just as his popularity was underrated in his election, I think it's being underrated around the country in these elections that are coming up."

Greenville GOP

A Trump/Pence sign posted over McMaster/Evette at a recent Greenville GOP forum. Gov. Henry McMaster is hoping his support from the president will lead him to four more years in the governor's office. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Smith, the Democratic state lawmaker from Columbia challenging McMaster, contends the Trump factor is not as significant as it may seem, saying he rarely hears about the president when he’s out on the campaign trail. 

“We’ve certainly gotten a lot of support from Democrats who are fired up, many of them because of 2016, clearly that’s quite obvious,” Smith said. “But I also get support from independents and from a lot of Trump voters, too.”

The results in 2016, Smith argued, were more attributable to a broad frustration with congressional ineptitude, a frustration that Trump sought to harness.

“He was the anti-establishment candidate,” Smith said. “Not all Trump voters in South Carolina are Henry voters because Henry is the epitome of the establishment and what’s been wrong with it.”

Trump has also waded into the state's 1st Congressional District. Hours before Arrington upset U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in June's GOP primary, Trump offered his endorsement of her on Twitter.

In the general election, Arrington is trying to show voters she's not waiting to work with Trump and his administration, saying she recently had dinner with the president, and has had past meetings with Vice President Mike Pence and senior administration officials, like U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

"It is the fight of good and evil," Arrington said about her 2018 midterm race in a recent radio interview.

But her Democratic opponent, construction attorney Joe Cunningham, pushed back the next day.

"Elections are not battles between good and evil. They're contests between good Americans who agree on the goal, but disagree on how to get there," Cunningham said in a statement, urging Arrington to "put down her partisan sword."

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Their back-and-forth mirrors the arguments being made nationally by their parties, as Republicans frame the election as a moral fight to maintain Trump's conservative agenda, while Democrats claim the Republicans are causing nationwide division. 

The Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings brought those arguments into sharp focus as the midterms neared.

South Carolina Republicans and Democrats said the confirmation hearings have energized voters, with both bases reporting an uptick in new volunteers and an increase in fundraising dollars.

Temperamental concerns

Even in South Carolina, where Trump won nearly 55 percent of the vote in 2016, some the president's vocal fans still find some aspects of his unconventional presidency difficult to stomach.

"Some of us wish he weren't quite so incendiary in his remarks," said Tom Hatfield, who moderates the Hilton Head Island 1st Monday Republican lunch group. "But given the choice between words and deeds, I hope we as Republicans always pick deeds." 

A recent national poll from Pew Research Center shows Hatfield reflects a nationwide trend. The survey, which was conducted from Sept. 18-24, found that Republicans gave Trump positive ratings on his traits, except for his temperament.

The survey also found 68 percent of Americans, including 91 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats, would describe Trump as "someone who stands up for what he believes in."

That could bode well for any on-the-fence independents Nov. 6. Still, it's to be determined how much the president will be a driver of turnout up and down the ballot.

Dianne Hughes, a 68-year-old retired teacher who lives in the small unincorporated town of Pinopolis in Berkeley County, said Trump was — and still is — the candidate she has been waiting for. 

But even though she supported him in 2016, she was not loud about it. It was one of the few times she said she did not put a political sign in her yard or on her car. 

Now, she's determined. She has been impressed with Trump, and called his tariffs "one of the smartest things we've never done."

When she learned Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin was going to back Cunningham in the 1st Congressional District race that includes her home, she said she planned to call him and give him a piece of her mind.

"Why would you want to take a seat to undo what we're trying to do here?" she said, rehearsing the lines she planned to tell him.

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

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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