Trump team woos officials in Haley’s home state

Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event at The North Charleston Coliseum, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Republican presidential candidate former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event at The North Charleston Coliseum, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was about to take the stage for her Jan. 24 rally in North Charleston, former President Donald Trump's campaign looked to make a statement about his popularity in the Palmetto State.

About quarter past 7 p.m., a news release rolled out the latest set of South Carolina endorsements for the former president after his 11-point victory in New Hampshire, signaling he was consolidating support for his third presidential campaign.

"Welcome home to Trump Country, Nikki, where there has been an earthquake of political and grassroots support backing President Trump as we head into the final month of the 'First In The South' primary," Trump South Carolina State Director Austin McCubbin said in the news release.

The Trump campaign's efforts to consolidate support involved meeting lawmakers at the State House and a series of text messages and phone calls to them.

The consolidation is a sign that much of the Republican Party in South Carolina is rallying around the former president, who remains popular in the ruby red state as his policies were appreciated by voters in the state.

LAWMAKER SUPPORT

Trump's campaign has used his public appearances to announce either big-name endorsements or lists of lawmakers supporting him.

In January at the State House, he announced his initial South Carolina leadership team, with Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and U.S. Reps. Russell Fry, William Timmons and Joe Wilson, among others.

When Trump attended the South Carolina GOP Silver Elephant Gala in August, he rolled out the endorsement from South Carolina House Speaker Murrell Smith. Smith traveled on Trump's private jet when the former president flew to Columbia for the dinner.

Right before his Summerville rally in September, Trump announced support from Attorney General Alan Wilson, Secretary of State Mark Hammond and House Majority Leader Davey Hiott, and several more state lawmakers.

The pattern was repeated ahead of Trump's appearance at the Clemson vs. University of South Carolina football game in November as the campaign rolled out six endorsements from lawmakers who previously backed U.S. Sen. Tim Scott's run.

Lawmakers were offered the opportunity to meet Trump and even ride in the motorcade to Williams-Brice Stadium.

The Trump campaign timed its Jan. 24 list of more than 150 endorsements to go out about the same time "Taking Care of Business" played inside the Charleston Area Convention Center for U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman to take the stage to introduce Haley at her first campaign rally after the New Hampshire primary.

Trump's endorsement list now includes current and former elected officials around the state, including more than 60 current state lawmakers, as well as every statewide elected official except for Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver and Comptroller General Brian Gaines, who was appointed to his job in June.

"All the statewide elected officials in South Carolina, we call them constitutional officers, are for Trump except one -- she's a rookie and she'll figure it out before long; our two U.S. senators and the vast majority of the people of South Carolina want Donald Trump," McMaster said in New Hampshire.

McMaster, asked about the comment, said he hoped more Republicans would come on board to Trump's campaign.

"I hope she will come around, but I hope a lot of other people will come around as well," McMaster said.

Gaines told The State newspaper he has no interest in endorsing in the race. Weaver declined to comment on the presidential race.

The show of support from State House Republicans came after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped out last month before the New Hampshire primary. A text message sent to lawmakers who had not yet backed a candidate or had previously backed other candidates asked if they wanted to be on Trump's endorsement list, and it included a link to a form to fill out, asking for their name and elected position.

It was similar to outreach done after U.S. Sen. Tim Scott dropped out. Trump's campaign pushed to consolidate support, meeting with lawmakers at the State House.

Haley's campaign also had been reaching out to legislators to gain their backing, lawmakers said.

But, Trump has a much longer endorsement list and follows how Haley, who had a 71% favorability rating among Republicans in a Winthrop University poll in November, ruffled feathers during her time the State House, and many elected officials who were in Columbia during her tenure don't share fond memories.

"She's always been the outsider; she's didn't have endorsements in 2010, she doesn't have them now, she is running as the outsider anti-establishment candidate," Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas told The State in January. "Nikki is focused on earning the votes and supporters and everyday Americans."

One lawmaker said in the week leading up to the Jan. 24 list, he received four calls from the Trump campaign or people related to the Trump campaign.

"It wasn't undue pressure. I didn't feel like anything about it was inappropriate, over the top, which is normal for politics," the lawmaker said, granted anonymity to speak freely. "You want to get as many people for your candidate as you can. There were no threats, promises."

State Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, who had supported DeSantis earlier in the race, received a call from Trump's campaign the Saturday before the Florida governor dropped out as signs appeared he would suspend his campaign.

Murphy, who supported Trump's campaign for the nomination in 2016, said it was a "no-brainer" for him to move to Trump, saying he's "the only candidate with a clear shot to the nomination."

One state representative said people from the Trump team were in the lobby of the State House in January trying to gain support from lawmakers.

Ahead of the Jan. 24 endorsement list release, more than one lawmaker said group text messages among multiple lawmakers went around that said there was an opportunity to get on board.

A lawmaker said a list went out giving lawmakers the ability to opt out, and the lawmaker characterized it as everyone being on the list being "on the team."

"Again, it was everyone's decision," the lawmaker said. "Anyone could have said, 'No, I'm not on the list.'"

WHY IS TRUMP SO POPULAR?

Trump's popularity has taken over the Republican Party, and his support is strong in the conservative South Carolina.

Trump, who won the 2016 South Carolina GOP presidential primary, holds a 26-point lead in the state over Haley in the latest Washington Post-Monmouth University poll.

It's a poll that found 66% of Republican voters have a favorable view of the former president. The poll also found 57% of GOP voters believe the claim that Biden won the 2020 election due to fraud. Trump's own Attorney General Bill Barr said there was no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

South Carolina also is a state Trump won in the 2016 and 2020 general election.

"They can just simply look at what he accomplished in his term," said state Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, who is now supporting Trump after backing Scott and DeSantis. "He kept his promises. We were energy independent at the end of that and now we're around begging for oil. Except for his last year where the covid issue came into play, his three years were magnificent as far as policy about the border, [and] closing the border."

Taylor said he reached out to the Trump campaign after DeSantis dropped out.

"I knew that afternoon, Trump was our best choice," Taylor said.

And backing Trump, who is the favorite to the GOP nomination, is helpful for lawmakers running for reelection this year, as they look at how well the former president performed in their districts in 2020 and how many Trump signs they see in their neighborhoods.

For Republican lawmakers, it's better to be on a Trump endorsement list than not, especially if they receive a primary challenge in June's elections.

Because of how district boundaries are drawn in the State House, most seats are not competitive in the general election, making the primary elections the key contests. Trump being a potential drag on Republicans in general elections nationally has not come to fruition in the Palmetto State.

Lawmakers backing Trump view him as the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party.

"So in supporting the Republican nominee and moving on to the general election is to make sure that our country is on track protecting our border, bringing down the deficit and debt, and making sure America moves forward with a positive conservative agenda," said state Rep. Jason Elliott, a Greenville County House member running for the state Senate this year.

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