South Carolina may go rogue in GOP presidential primary

Since 1980, the Republican presidential nominee has won every contested South Carolina GOP primary — a record that has given the Palmetto State’s vote a kingmaker aura.

Why? In part, because S.C. Republican primary voters always have backed the GOP’s establishment candidate.

But that could change this year.

The Republican Party’s nominal 2012 front-runner — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — thus far largely has ignored South Carolina, where he fared poorly in the state’s 2008 GOP primary. Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidates affiliated with the party’s anti-establishment Tea Party wing have strong backing in the state, according to recent polls. Tea Party favorites also hold one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats, its Governor’s Mansion and four congressional districts.

That could set the stage for South Carolina “going rogue” — to borrow a Sarah Palin phrase — next year and shedding its affinity for Republican establishment front-runners.

Surprising? Not really, says one longtime S.C. politico.

“There are new rules, and the rules are being rewritten every cycle,” said Warren Tompkins, who ran then-U.S. Sen. Bob Dole’s successful S.C. primary campaign in 1996.

Back then, Dole was the GOP front-runner, the party’s establishment candidate. He had won the GOP contest in Iowa, but lost to upstart Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire. However, S.C. Republicans quickly restored order in the GOP. Dole won the Palmetto State and went on to win the GOP nomination.

But S.C. Republicans have changed since then, says Tompkins. “We’re not as predictable as we once were. We’re not as establishment-oriented as we once were.”

Just ask former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett and former state Attorney General Henry McMaster. Last year, S.C. Republicans rejected both — long-serving, well-known Republicans — in the GOP primary for governor, nominating instead a little-known, Tea Party-backed state representative, Nikki Haley.

The political lesson?

For Romney, South Carolina looks likely to prove a task. On the other hand, South Carolina could prove to be a blast for a Tea Party favorite, such as Michele Bachmann.

The Tea Party

As the GOP heads toward its 2012 nomination, Romney has raised more money than all of the other declared Republican candidates combined.

And he leads in all of the polls, including South Carolina, with 27 percent, according to the most recent American Research Group poll. But, for Romney, who has tried and lost before in South Carolina, that 27 percent well could be a ceiling — not a base to build from.

Meanwhile, 39 percent of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina say they support either Sarah Palin, the GOP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee who has yet to say if she will run in 2012; U.S. Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota, whose S.C. appearances have attracted big and loud crowds; or Atlanta businessman Herman Cain.

Those three have one common denominator: The Tea Party.

“Someone is going to consolidate the so-called Tea Party vote,” predicted Tompkins. “So all of a sudden the Tea Party candidate and Romney will be butting heads with whatever else is out there.”

If that prediction plays out, watch out, Mitt.

But many of the state’s top Republican campaigners and fundraisers say it is too early to predict the Tea Party candidate will win South Carolina, citing several factors:

_ South Carolina’s primary is “open” to any voter, not just registered Republicans. Because it is open, the primary attracts independents and conservative Democrats, many attracted to moderate candidates, not ideologues. “Candidates who can attract independents or conservatives not identified with the party have an opportunity (to win),” said Tony Denny, former executive director of the S.C. Republican party.

_ It’s not clear the GOP field is set. Other candidates — including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is considering a bid — would enter the race and usurp Romney’s title as the establishment’s front-running Republican.

_ Potential S.C. kingmakers are sitting on the sidelines, not backing any candidate yet. U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of Greenville has urged his supporters to hold onto their endorsements and wallets until at least after Labor Day, when the Tea Party favorite will host his own beauty contest for GOP candidates in Columbia. S.C. Gov. Haley, another Tea Party favorite, also is still sitting on the sidelines. “(Republicans) have a wait-and-see attitude,” said Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard, a DeMint adviser.

_ Some S.C. Republicans may not want to risk their party’s reputation as kingmakers. Those Republicans vote for who they think can win in the fall presidential election, not who they like the most, said Barry Wynn, a Greenville-based GOP fundraiser. “The national press doesn’t understand that. The vote here is not really litmus-test-type votes. It is really people looking around and saying, ‘Who can win?’ ”

The shrinking middle

Historically, since the ’80s, South Carolina has backed the establishment Republican.

In 1996, for instance, conservative columnist Buchanan shocked Republicans by winning the notoriously contrarian New Hampshire primary. That victory, the pundits said, set the stage for Buchanan’s triumphal entry into South Carolina, where he enjoyed the support of textile billionaire Roger Milliken, and could count on legions of religious and social conservatives to crown him.

Instead, GOP frontrunner Dole pushed Buchanan to the right politically, pushed former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander to the left, and won the state by taking the votes in the middle, Tompkins said.

A recipe for 2012?

Not necessarily, Tompkins said. Today, “the middle is not nearly as big as it used to be.”

Most political observers think Romney is on track to lose Iowa with its social conservatives and win New Hampshire, literally the Massachusetts resident’s second home, setting up yet another S.C. showdown to determine the party’s front-runner.

Given that scenario, Romney would win South Carolina en route to the GOP nomination if history holds true.

But Romney has pulled back his campaigning in South Carolina.

Why? He spent millions in the state in 2008 only to finish fourth in the GOP primary. This year, his strategy seemingly is to just do OK — not necessarily win — in South Carolina.

“They think just writing the state off is a bad idea,” said Wynn, the Greenville-based fundraiser who has spoken with Romney staff. “But to come in and play so heavy that you are expected to win might be a bad idea as well. ... What they would like to do is remain looking viable nationally by doing OK in Iowa, and winning New Hampshire, and doing OK in South Carolina.”

That strategy would leave the GOP’s nomination to be decided elsewhere, in some later state, diminishing the S.C. primary’s coveted kingmaker status.

Going rogue like 1980

That, of course, assumes that Romney is the GOP front-runner, the party’s chosen, establishment candidate.

Maybe he’s not.

Maybe it’s just too early to tell.

Maybe the S.C. GOP is not on the edge of going rogue for the first time. Maybe, instead, it’s on the verge of going rogue for the second time, the first so long ago that many have forgotten.

Richard Quinn, a Columbia-based political consultant who has been involved in every S.C. Republican primary since it all started in 1980, said sometimes it’s hard to tell who the establishment candidate is.

Before the state’s first primary, Quinn signed on to help a promising candidate but couldn’t find anyone to endorse him. South Carolina’s Republican establishment, led by U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, along with former Gov. Jim Edwards, had endorsed former Texas Gov. John Connally, like Thurmond a onetime Democrat.

Quinn stuck with his candidate, who went on to win South Carolina’s primary, the Republican nomination and the presidency.

That candidate’s name?

Ronald Reagan.