South Carolina Governor Pence (copy)

Vice President Mike Pence spoke in Conway in 2018 to support S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster. He'll return to the state later this month for U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan's annual Faith & Freedom BBQ. File/Richard Shiro/AP

COLUMBIA — Vice President Mike Pence will headline U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan's 9th Faith and Freedom BBQ in Anderson later this month, joining a growing list of big-name conservatives who have spoken at the South Carolina congressman's annual fundraiser over the years.

The event, announced Monday by Duncan's reelection campaign, will mark Pence's third trip to the key early primary state of South Carolina in 2019 alone — fueling speculation that he could be laying preliminary groundwork for his own potential future bid for president. 

"You can't help but ask the question after you see that news," veteran S.C. GOP consultant Walter Whetsell said. 

South Carolina is also home to former Gov. Nikki Haley, another oft-rumored presidential aspirant who left as ambassador to the United Nations at the end of 2018. Both Pence and Haley recently spoke at a Republican Governors Association fundraiser in Aspen, offering a possible preview of what could be ahead in 2024.

In a statement announcing the headliner, Duncan praised Pence for "working hand-in-hand with President Donald Trump to Make America Great Again."

"The Vice President is a friend and a strong conservative ally fighting for our beloved liberties against the radical socialist agenda that is spreading among the Democrat Party," Duncan said. "He is a fearless fighter and defender of the Constitution, and it’s an immense honor to have him join the largest gathering of conservatives in South Carolina."

In 2013, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky headlined Duncan's fundraiser, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did it in 2014. Both ended up running for president shortly afterward.

Then, in 2015, when the presidential race was in full swing, three declared candidates spoke at the event: surgeon Ben Carson, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and then-Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

South Carolina remains a reliable GOP stronghold, meaning Trump's reelection campaign is unlikely to spend any significant time or resources in the state. As a result, Lander University political science professor Lucas McMillan said he suspects Pence's visit offers "more of a branding opportunity for him." 

"Congressman Duncan has developed a fairly strong and understood brand about his place in the Republican Party," McMillan said. "So Mike Pence understands that, understands the people who are attracted to that and perhaps wants to begin making a relationship with those supporters that would enable him to have some real options going forward." 

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Pence's South Carolina stop will come fresh off a recent visit to Iowa, another critical early primary state, where he went to sell the Trump administration's renegotiated trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

Earlier this year, the vice president helped U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham kick off his reelection campaign in Myrtle Beach and Greenville, and he came to Columbia to promote the opportunity zone program created by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott in the 2017 tax bill.

When Joe Biden was vice president, he often visited South Carolina in Obama's place — a track record that is now paying dividends as Biden leads Democratic presidential primary polls in the state.

The Faith and Freedom BBQ will be on Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. in the Anderson Sports and Entertainment Center. Tickets cost $35 per person.

U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, is also slated to speak at this year's event, along with other South Carolina Republicans. Jordan co-founded the conservative House Freedom Caucus, of which Duncan is a member.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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