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‘He has been almost invincible’: Why Trump is likely to dominate South Carolina

GREENVILLE, S.C. — When Nikki Haley stood onstage here Tuesday festooned by American flags and defiantly said she would stay in the GOP primary even if she lost her home state, she was alone even as many of the state’s top politicians were nearby.

Instead, the state’s governor, both senators, many congressmen and top donors were all gathered in the backyard of a country club mansion and listened as Donald Trump extensively complained about a New York judge who ruled against him, railed about problems in the 2020 election, attacked President Biden and said he would make better personnel choices if reelected.

Trump barely mentioned Haley, said Republican state Sen. Josh Kimbrell, who attended the event.

“He said he was feeling good about South Carolina. I don’t honestly recall him even saying anything concrete about her. He doesn’t view her as a factor here because there really isn’t a primary here,” Kimbrell said.

That should be an eye-popping statement in a state where Trump is facing a former two-term governor Saturday and is widely expected to notch another win. Trump’s success is largely because the former president has attracted the widespread support of the state’s evangelical pastors, activists and even the political establishment — even as Haley has outworked and outspent Trump in the state.

The once quadrennial South Carolina political mud fight has been mostly a snoozer, Republicans across South Carolina say. There have been no viral ads or explosive revelations. Roadside signs are scarce driving across the state. On a recent evening at Salty Nut Cafe in downtown Columbia, many said they were unaware when voting would even occur. Across Columbia, conversation centered more on the undefeated South Carolina women’s basketball team than the election in the days leading up to the GOP primary. Gov. Henry McMaster (R), a Trump supporter, was not even in the state for part of the primary’s final week.

“It’s unusual that there isn’t buzz. If you’d told me six months ago there would have been this attitude, I thought it would have been a knock-down, drag-out. It seems people have sort of made up their mind about Trump and they aren’t changing,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview.

Instead, the state’s top Republicans, who largely did not back Trump in 2016, have lined up behind him en masse, literally and figuratively, lending credence to the argument the election is a fait accompli. His team, along with the state’s top lawmakers, aggressively courted state officials and deployed them across South Carolina — even to events Trump skipped himself — and to New Hampshire to campaign against Haley. The biggest blow, people who know Haley say, was Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) standing onstage with Trump after she lost to him in the Granite State. Haley appointed Scott to his U.S. Senate seat.

“Her only elected congressional endorsement is Ralph Norman. What does that tell you?” said Rep. William Timmons (R), an upstate congressman backing Trump, referring to a congressman who backed Haley. Norman did not respond to a request for comment.

Even some Haley allies were privately predicting she would lose Saturday’s primary by 20 points and began trying to lower expectations in the days leading up to the contest, spinning that losing her home state by 10 or 15 points would, actually, be a win. Haley says she’s in the contest for the long haul — Super Tuesday, where 15 states vote, is on March 5 — but that could change if she’s trounced in her own state.

“I’m real proud of what Nikki Haley has done,” said Katon Dawson, a top Haley adviser in South Carolina, when asked whether she had a chance. “Donald Trump knows how to bottle anger and sell it. Nikki Haley knows how to bottle optimism and hope. It’s easier to sell hate so it’s an uphill battle.”

Haley’s allies say they feel like they have been tilting at proverbial windmills in recent weeks, trying to convince state Republicans to move on from Trump because he is not in the party’s best interest.

They have attempted to bring independents and Democrats into the fold and have repeatedly touted polls showing Haley beating Biden by large margins in a general election. Anyone who did not vote in the Feb. 3 Democratic primary can vote in the state’s Republican one.

Gresham Barrett, a former congressman who is close to Haley, said he has struggled to understand Trump’s grip on the state’s evangelical voters. When he first ran for Congress, Barrett said even an “innuendo of impropriety” could be enough to disqualify a candidate. Now, he said, some of his longtime supporters and Trump backers don’t even want to talk to him after learning he is for Haley. They won’t brook any criticism of Trump, and many voters like him more after he was charged with 91 felonies, Barrett said.

“I cannot figure it out,” he said.

While both campaigns aggressively recruited pastors in recent weeks, Trump has far more evangelical support, according to 10 Republican lawmakers and operatives here. One top operative said Haley’s team had struggled to get pastors to back them — including many pastors who liked her in the past.

“It’s kind of very surprising to me how very little traction she’s been able to get even with pastors who supported her in her gubernatorial races,” said a prominent operative unaffiliated in the race. “It’s a combination of the charges against him, his record, which in their minds is unassailable, and the inevitability of the whole thing.”

Pastors in South Carolina have convened calls for Trump, made public declarations on his behalf and told their congregations that Trump deserves support because he is vilified, much like Christians have been, according to state operatives and lawmakers.

Al Phillips, a prominent pastor in Greenville, said he was flooded with appeals from both campaigns. Pastors are often influential, he said, because even though most will not endorse a candidate from the pulpit — they will tell their church members privately who they support.

“Pastors seem to be overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, although I think a lot of pastors are a little bit afraid to say they are for Trump because it’s such a polarizing issue. A lot of pastors that I talk to very much support Trump. They have issues with his character and his nature but really like his policies,” Phillips said.

Phillips said that Trump’s record on abortion — appointing the Supreme Court justices that enabled the overturning of Roe vs. Wade — was one of the main reasons so many South Carolina voters support him, and that the former president had a strong organization in the state. “He just appeals to staunch conservatives in a way [Haley] doesn’t,” Phillips said. “He has been almost invincible here from the get-go.”

Haley, the generally popular but never beloved governor, who backed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2016, has a tortured history with Trump. After his election, she was appointed to the United Nations before becoming a Trump defender during his presidency — then critic, then defender, then vowing not to run against him in 2021, then running against him in 2023, then critic anew.

She has sought to make her home state’s primary an actual race, showing a stubborn willingness to keep fighting that many recognize from her time as governor. Haley has spoken at more than 40 events in recent weeks, crossing the state in an emblazoned bus and eviscerating Trump in a way few Republican candidates have done to date, questioning his mental fitness and highlighting his criminal and civil trials, among other criticisms, and saying that Trump cannot win the general election.

“He will not defeat Joe Biden in November and he will drag the entire Republican ticket down with him,” Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney said Friday of Trump.

Haley raised more than $11 million in January, filings show, and has spent more than $15 million on TV in the last month.

“Every 30 seconds there’s a Haley ad. She has spent a boat load of money, and he’s spending nothing,” Graham said. Trump’s ads have attacked Haley for wanting to raise the age of Social Security recipients and on immigration, saying she is not tough enough on the border.

Even some who have known Haley for years are perplexed by her kamikaze-style determination to forge ahead, saying she must believe Trump is going to be criminally convicted and Republicans are going to change their mind about their best hope of defeating Biden in November. Others argue Haley wants vindication as the last Republican standing against Trump if he ultimately loses in the fall and the GOP begins to grapple with its choices. And some others say she has a small coterie of advisers — many who have never seen her lose a race — and still has copious money to burn. “Maybe it’s the idea he slips and falls somewhere,” Graham said.

Barrett said the answer to why Haley remains in the race is simple. She believes she can still win.

“I was in politics for a long time, and this woman is one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, I have ever seen,” Barrett said. “She is in it for the long haul. She is determined to go to the goal line because she believes she can win, she honestly does. The conversations I’ve had with her, even privately, there is no doubt in her mind she is going to be the nominee.”

Trump, meanwhile, has spent a little more than $1 million in the state. He has held a handful of his signature rallies and large events, far fewer than Haley, most notably a rally in Conway, where he seemed to threaten the existence of NATO by encouraging Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” if European allies don’t contribute 2 percent of their GDP to the alliance.

On Friday, he held two events, appearing in Columbia for a Black conservative gala and in Rock Hill for one of his trademark rallies. “Nikki Haley is relying on Democrats and liberals,” Trump said to boos. “The biggest supporters she has right now [are] the Biden supporters.”

There is a risk to staying in the race, even some of her advisers fear, if she wants a political future. Haley has angered many South Carolina Republicans by continuing to slash Trump and stay in the race, costing him money and diverting attention from Biden.

“Is she going to stay in until the last vote’s cast? Do you know how irresponsible that is? I’m going to drag the Republican Party through an unnecessary fight with an inevitable outcome all for personal gain,” Timmons said. “If she would have gotten out three weeks ago, people would have respected that. But this is the end of her political career. What she is doing is not good for the Republican Party, not good for the country, not good for her.”

Haley has dismissed the talk. “I don’t care about my political future. If I did, I would have been out by now,” she said this week.

Dawson said he was under no illusions about how the race might end, but he argues Republicans would come to regret nominating Trump. The former state party chair said Republicans were once about adding to the party, not just appealing to hardcore supporters. He doesn’t think Trump can do that.

“Everything we do for Donald Trump puts us on the line as a party. His coattails have been skinny every time, and we keep making the same choice. He needs to go build his museum at Mar-a-Lago so he can up the price for getting in one more time. He’s going to need it because he’s broke,” Dawson said.

He added: “But who can win a general has never mattered in our party. I keep saying, ‘Where’s the outrage?’ There is no outrage.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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