Fueled by record voter turnout, billionaire businessman Donald Trump easily captured the South Carolina Republican primary, vaulting ahead for a second straight win and moving another step closer to becoming the eventual GOP nominee.
The hotly contested race for second place between Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio ran late into the night before Rubio emerged with the coveted second-place spot by a narrow margin.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did not see the turnaround he’d hoped for, trailing far behind and prompting him to immediately suspend his campaign.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson also trailed, raising further doubts about their viability.
“This has become a three-person race,” Rubio said.
Trump’s win provides further evidence that the grassroots and working-class anger fueling his rise still simmers. Dust-ups with Pope Francis over a border wall with Mexico and former President George W. Bush over the Sept. 11 terror attacks appeared to have little impact on Trump’s popularity.
More than half of the GOP turnout Saturday — more than 725,000 voters — said they felt betrayed by Republican politicians, The Associated Press said its exit poll surveys showed. Trump also did well with evangelicals, who make up a majority of the GOP voters in South Carolina.
The GOP field now turns to the Nevada Republican caucus Tuesday, where Trump has a 20-point lead.
“Let’s put this thing away and let’s make America great again,” Trump said inside the Spartanburg Marriott, accepting his win in front of a packed crowd of hundreds.
“There’s nothing easy about running for president,” he added. “It’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious. It’s beautiful — when you win, it’s beautiful.”
Meanwhile, the Bush brand that had been established in the Palmetto State did little to boost early frontrunner Jeb Bush. Last-minute visits to the state by his popular brother and mother weren’t enough to lift his campaign after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, forcing him to suspend his bid.
“The presidency is bigger than any one person,” Bush said during his concession speech in Columbia an hour after the polls closed. “It’s certainly bigger than any one candidate.”
Rubio, buoyed late in the week by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement, overcame a weak debate performance leading up to New Hampshire to move up in a tight race for a coveted second-place finish versus Cruz. The two were separated by about 1,000 votes as the counting came to a close with Rubio in the lead.
Rubio addressed supporters from Columbia with Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and other backers by his side, projecting the image that a new Republican Party might be emerging.
“Ten days ago, we arrived in South Carolina after a difficult election in New Hampshire in search of a new beginning and a fresh start,” Rubio said. “If it is God’s will that I should serve as the 45th president, if it is God’s will that we should win this election, then history will say that on this night in South Carolina we took the first step forward in the beginning of a new American century.”
Trump won in every part of the state except from Charleston and Richland counties, which broke for Rubio.
Cruz, who before Haley’s endorsement was pegged to finish second to Trump, told his supporters the race remains a fight between the grassroots and established Washington. His battle with Trump had been one of the dominant storylines of the last week as Trump hammered him over his honesty and authenticity.
“In Iowa, they said it couldn’t be done and we won,” Cruz told his supporters. “In New Hampshire, they said a conservative Bible-believing Christian could not compete, and we defied expectations. And tonight, despite millions and millions of dollars of false and nasty attacks, despite the entirety of the political establishment coming against us, South Carolina has given us another remarkable result.”
Both men are expected to compete for former Bush supporters. Both are also expected to fight over who is best suited to stop the Trump momentum.
The so-called party establishment has now failed on two straight occasions, New Hampshire included, to quell the voter anger from Republicans of all stripes over how the GOP has managed its portion of running the country in recent years.
Trump, who campaigned mainly by drawing thousands to a schedule of big rallies around the state, takes South Carolina 11 days after his earlier big win in New Hampshire. His victory was near total, taking at least 44 out the state’s 50 delegates up for grabs, according to the early counts.
“This is a special state, these are special people,” Trump said. “We got a little boost last week from a place we all remember, New Hampshire. They sent us in here with a very good feeling.”
Every Republican who has won South Carolina since the 1980s has gone on to win the party nomination, with the exception of Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney four years ago.
Trump supporters said the results indicate the state is correcting itself.
“I am so sick of the same old politicians who say what they’re going to do and they go to Washington and it’s completely different,” William Mullikin said at the Trump rally in Spartanburg.
His wife, Megan, added that Trump’s South Carolina means the door is opening wider for other parts of the country to walk through.
“We know candidates, we chose the right candidates,” she said. “This is going to set the standard for the rest of the country.”
Post and Courier reporters Cynthia Roldan, Gavin Jackson and Maya Prabhu and The Associated Press contributed to this report.