Nikki Haley has bet her 2024 bid on South Carolina, but much of her home state leans toward Trump

Published 1:22 pm Wednesday, December 27, 2023

GILBERT, S.C. (AP) — Standing inside a rustic barn a short drive from the state capital, Henry McMaster shocked many South Carolina Republicans seven years ago by backing Donald Trump for president.

Then the lieutenant governor, McMaster became the first statewide-elected official in the country to endorse Trump in 2016. The event was in Lexington County, the adopted political home of then-Gov. Nikki Haley, who had repeatedly criticized Trump and endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Trump would win the 2016 primary in South Carolina and eventually the presidency. After campaigning against him, Haley would accept his nomination as United Nations ambassador, making McMaster governor.

That complicated history is coming to the fore as Haley mounts a spirited effort to become the leading Republican alternative to Trump. Her strategy is centered on a strong showing in next month’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary before much of the campaign’s focus shifts to South Carolina, where the Feb. 24 contest could be the last chance for anyone other than Trump to prove they can survive.

But her home state has shifted closer to Trump in the near-decade since she last ran for state office, threatening her ability to tap into her local roots to notch the victory she has promised.

“Ten years is an eternity when all politics are national,” said Matt Moore, a former state GOP chairman. “Trump tapped into thousands of low-frequency voters who have reshaped South Carolina politics. Many of them weren’t focused on state-level issues prior, or even now.”

Trump’s grip on GOP

The former president this time has the endorsement of almost every major South Carolina Republican. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who ran against Trump, suggested he would destroy the Republican Party and openly questioned McMaster’s thinking over the 2016 endorsement, is now a close ally of the former president and is co-chairing Trump’s state campaign with McMaster.

South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, state treasurer, attorney general and three of its six Republican U.S. House members all back Trump. The only congressman to endorse Haley is Rep. Ralph Norman, a longtime ally.

Trump drew an estimated 50,000 people to a sweltering Fourth of July rally in Pickens, South Carolina, in the strongly conservative Upstate. Haley, meanwhile, set a record for her campaign last month with 2,500 people along the state’s southern coast, known for its wealthier and more traditional conservative set.

John Reed, a businessman from upscale Hilton Head Island who donated to Haley’s 2010 campaign, backed Trump in 2016 and 2020. But he is supporting Haley this time because he says she offers a contrast from Trump’s “divisive and disrespectful” tenor.

“I think Nikki’s the best of them because she has abilities and experience,” said Reed. “Trump’s narcissism and pride and arrogance is just too much for the office.”

Losing South Carolina would be a huge blow to Haley’s campaign, which is counting on outlasting rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and picking up momentum from people open to a Trump alternative. A home state primary loss has devastated previous campaigns, including Rubio, who dropped out of the 2016 primary after a blowout loss to Trump in Florida. Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 Democratic race after losing several primaries in one day, including in her home state of Massachusetts.

Lexington County, where McMaster endorsed Trump, is Haley’s adopted political home and the area she represented in the state legislature. She came back to the same rustic barn in April to hold a rally for her presidential campaign.

She was little known when she launched a bid for governor against three high-profile candidates — including McMaster — running on a message of fiscal responsibility and going after what she described as entrenched powers in Columbia. She aligned with the “tea party” movement that arose during President Barack Obama’s first term.

Her key endorsement in that race was Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who remained a powerhouse in GOP politics after her 2008 vice presidential bid. After also being backed by Mitt Romney, whose 2008 White House run she had supported, Haley nearly won the GOP primary outright and was victorious in the runoff.

Haley’s record

Haley points to several accomplishments during her six years as governor, including bringing economic investment and jobs to the state, requiring companies to verify the employment eligibility of their workers, and supporting voter ID laws. She’s perhaps best remembered nationally for helping to persuade the Legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds after a mass shooting in which a white gunman killed eight Black church members who were attending Bible study — although Haley had previously dismissed the need for the flag to come down.

Haley’s presidential campaign points toward her previous popularity in South Carolina as a signal she will perform well when it comes time for her home state’s voters to make their selection.

“South Carolinians first elected Nikki when she was the anti-establishment, conservative candidate for governor,” said Olivia Perez-Cubas. “They know she has what it takes to win because they’ve seen her beat the odds before — not just once, but twice.”

But Trump changed Republican politics in South Carolina and nationally.

That includes Lexington County, where the county GOP has been roiled for months by a legal battle between two people claiming to oversee it, a split within a recently elected slate supportive of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” vision.

Michael Burgess, who served as a vice chairman for the Lexington County GOP and described himself as a “never ever, ever Trumper,” said he felt the area’s shift toward populism in the years after Trump’s 2016 election.

“Lexington County is a microcosm of South Carolina,” said Burgess, who teaches AP U.S. History at a local high school. “What we’ve seen since the 2020 election is a concerted effort by MAGA to take over the county party mechanism, and essentially, when they do that, to drive out long-term establishment Reagan Republicans.”

Burgess, who said he voted for neither Trump nor Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and supported Democrat Joe Biden in 2020, said he had initially backed South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in the 2024 GOP primary, but now sees Haley as the party’s best bet to defeat Trump.

But another person who supported Haley when she ran in 2010 now blames her for criticizing Trump in 2016, even though he supported her work as governor.

“When she came out and said, ‘We need to ignore a lot of the loud voices,’ that kind of really rubbed me wrong, because it was those voices that got her elected governor,” said Allen Olsen, who founded a “tea party” group in South Carolina’s capital city of Columbia. “Although I understood what she was doing, it really kind of felt like I got stabbed in the back.”

State Rep. RJ May, a leader of the state’s House Freedom Caucus, argued Haley is now more of an establishment figure due to her service as governor and then United Nations ambassador.

He said he doesn’t see Trump the same way — even though Trump is now a former president running his third campaign for the White House.

“It’s hard to take that lane from Donald Trump, considering the weaponization of the federal government that we’re seeing,” said May, who has not endorsed a candidate in the presidential primary. “One thing I don’t think you can call Donald Trump is an insider.”

But there are still people in South Carolina who have been waiting for Haley to run for the White House.

At the event in Bluffton, South Carolina, that drew 2,500 people, Veronica Wetzel donned a “Nikki 2024” hat she said she bought years ago. Now, she said she’s ready to vote for Haley, in part because she wants to see Republicans win in November.

“I really don’t know if Donald Trump can win,” said Wetzel, adding she had supported Trump in past contests. “We need to put somebody in there who can win because the last thing we need right now is to lose this election.”