Trump team struggles to muster support ahead of S.C. event
Advisers to Donald Trump have blanketed South Carolina Republican officials with pleading phone calls in recent weeks in an effort to drum up endorsements and attendees for the former president's first campaign swing of the 2024 cycle next week.
But the appeals have run headlong into a complicated new reality: Many of the state's lawmakers and political operatives, and even some of his previous supporters, are not ready to pick a presidential candidate.
They find themselves divided between their support for Trump, their desire for a competitive nomination fight in the state and their allegiance to two South Carolina natives, former Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott, who have taken steps to challenge Trump for the nomination. Both are said by people close to them to be seriously considering a bid, and Haley is expected to announce in the coming weeks, South Carolina operatives said.
The result foretells a Trump launch event in the early primary state - with an expected endorsement by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., and a reaffirmation of support from Gov. Henry McMaster (R) - that positions the former president as a serious contender but stops short of demonstrating the dominance that he once enjoyed.
"Nikki Haley is probably our first South Carolinian since we voted for George Washington that has really had a chance of being president of the United States," said former South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson, a supporter of the former governor, explaining the challenge. "And I think the Trump folks are going to run into that history."
Dave Wilson, president of Palmetto Family Council, an influential evangelical group, said "there is more than a little bit of softening" of Trump support in South Carolina, saying many had been turned off by some of his recent comments, including questioning the loyalty of evangelical voters. Wilson said many evangelicals in the state wanted to wait and see who got into the race.
"A lot of people recognize the importance of the Trump presidency who are stepping back and are saying, 'Is there another standard-bearer for the party and the issues we believe in?' Someone who can carry us not just four more years, but eight more years and create momentum," he said.
State party chairman Drew McKissick will not be attending the Jan. 28 Trump event, because of the RNC meeting next week in California, and Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., a close ally of both Trump and Haley, has a prior commitment on Jan. 28 that he may not be able to break to attend the rally, according to their advisers. Hope Walker, executive director of the state party, recently turned down a job offer from the Trump campaign because she has decided to stay in her role for the cycle.
Several other state lawmakers have also told Trump's team that they will not be able to make it, according to people familiar with the conversations, who like others for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Graham has been trying to rally support for Trump, three people familiar with the calls said, telling people they should get on board because he is likely to be the nominee.
"The Trump campaign is trying to consolidate support. But I don't think it is going to be as quick as they think," said one state lawmaker, who has so far resisted the appeals of the Trump team and heard mutterings of support for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). "Right now my constituency is as excited about Ron DeSantis as Donald Trump, if not more."
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump's campaign, said the former president would make a strong show of support at the event. "President Trump is going to South Carolina to unveil his leadership team, which will show the significant support he has throughout the state, from grass-roots leaders to elected officials," he said.
The event - to be staged at the State House - has faced some logistical hurdles as well, people familiar with the planning say.
Trump's likely rivals for the nomination are also doing their part to prevent early Trump dominance. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been running Facebook ads in the state this year promising to help "principled conservatives in South Carolina restore the American Dream!" Former Vice President Mike Pence toured South Carolina last month, capping a year that saw him working closely with church leaders in the state.
Perhaps the most aggressive has been Haley, who worked for Trump as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She gathered more than 30 state lawmakers, including newly elected leaders she did not know during her time as governor, at a breakfast in Columbia earlier this month. She took questions about her time at the U.N. and her views on China, according to people familiar with the remarks. Days later, she told Fox News that she was seriously considering a presidential campaign announcement, boasting "I've never lost a race."
"She already has a built-in donor network and is familiar with a lot of the activists, and she very much appreciates all those people, but she's not taking South Carolina for granted," a Republican in the state said. "She's putting in the work there in case she decides to run."
Haley's issue advocacy group, Stand for America, recently hired Suzanne Youngblood Lane, a digital strategist for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., according to an email Lane sent colleagues. Lexington, S.C., consultant Walter Whetsell is expected to join her campaign if she launches. But in a sign of just how competitive the fight for talent has become, Tim Chapman, the executive director of Stand for America, told the Associated Press on Friday that he was leaving to join Pence's team.
"There is so much deck-chair shuffling right now between the campaigns," the state lawmaker said.
Pence and Pompeo have frequently visited the state, operatives and local politicos said. "We have seen Mike Pence, we have seen Mike Pompeo several times - I understand why Ron DeSantis has not left Florida. He still has to be governor. But it's getting to be time to get in your cars, get in your planes and come to South Carolina," Wilson said.
Graham and Rep. Russell Fry, R-S.C., who largely owes his election last year to Trump's endorsement, have joined at least two junior members of the Trump team in doing outreach in the state, systematically calling Republican legislators over the last two weeks. One person familiar with the efforts said Graham had been twisting the arms of congressmen who endorsed Trump last time. An Iowa political operative, Alex Latcham, has also been calling around to get people to Trump's event, according to a person who received a call.
Trump's last large event in the state, a spring rally in Florence, attracted thousands of supporters, and the pre-rally reception invitation boasted 36 co-chairs - a show of force that included people like McKissick, Scott and Norman, who are not expected to be with Trump again at his event. Trump has chosen a much smaller venue this time, the inside of the State House in Columbia, which is expected to accommodate about 500 people.
Trump has been deliberate in hiring since he announced his 2024 candidacy in November, depending on a core group of senior advisers, including longtime adviser Susie Wiles, veteran strategist Chris LaCivita and Brian Jack, the former White House political director who more recently worked for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The team has not rushed to hire new people, in part because the former president is unable to use the funds he raised during the midterm elections to benefit his presidential campaign.
Trump's team has also been unable to fundraise for his presidential campaign on Facebook, a major source of campaign contributions in his past races, owing to a ban the social network imposed on him for his role in the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. A Trump attorney sent a letter last week to Facebook demanding reinstatement. Facebook officials have promised a decision on Trump's reinstatement in the coming weeks.
Trump has also considered adding a second event in New Hampshire on the same day as the Saturday event, according to a person familiar with the planning, aiming to plant his flag in that state, where Gov. Chris Sununu (R), a Trump critic, has been exploring his own presidential campaign. "He is frustrated with these stories and the narrative he is being lazy," this person said.
Republican consultants in South Carolina agree that Trump starts in a strong position, especially if many candidates remain in the race after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.
"A two-way race is competitive for Trump. And in a crowded race, Trump has a significant advantage," said one Republican who had reviewed recent data from the state. "There is just a segment of Trump voters that Trump gets no matter what."
But with more than a year to go before the South Carolina primary, much can happen that will change the dynamics in the race. Republican consultants in the state say Trump is unlikely to dissuade any rivals with his event on Saturday.
"While I am sure this will be a show of force, I don't think he'll change the calculus in terms of running in terms of any sitting governors, former governors or sitting members of Congress," said Rob Godfrey, a prominent South Carolina consultant who has worked for Haley, McMaster and others.
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Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.