In January 2012, I was invited to speak to the Senate Presidents’ Forum, a national gathering of state senate leaders, in Key West. I was on a panel with several others who were there to talk about that year’s presidential politics. They had the legendary David Yepsen from Iowa, and I was the putative South Carolina “expert.” This was just days before our GOP presidential primary.
But this was a situation in which experience and expertise counted for little, as the usual dynamics weren’t doing what they usually do.
The textbook answer on South Carolina, based on all the primaries I had covered back into the ’80s, was that the establishment candidate would win here. Oh, our Republicans might flirt with bomb-throwers from the fringe, but in the end they’d settle down and choose the safe, conservative (in the real sense of the word, not the bizarre ways that it’s flung about these days) candidate.
Which that year meant Mitt Romney. He was the perfect country-club Republican, and it was his turn.
But ever since 2010 — really, ever since the defeat of 2008 — the party had been going a little nuts, and wasn’t acting itself. The SC GOP of old would, for instance, have gone with Henry McMaster or maybe Gresham Barrett, for governor. But the Tea Party swept Nikki Haley in from the back of the pack. Yeah, the Tea Party was a national phenomenon, but if there’s some crazy going on, white South Carolinians have a history of wanting to get out in front of it — a history that reached much farther back than its history as an endorser of establishment Republicans.
But surely SC Republicans would settle down on their presidential preference, cherishing their role as the ones who point the rest of the country toward the strongest, safest choice. Well… maybe. But I saw some poll numbers that worried me. And I saw lists of solid establishment Republicans getting behind Newt Gingrich.
This worried me, a lot. I made phone calls from my hotel room in Key West to some key Republicans to try to gauge just how hard that wind was blowing.
In the end, I told the assembled state senators that if you forced me to make a prediction, I’d still say that South Carolina would be South Carolina and go with Romney — but that there were indications that it could be Gingrich.
Of course, it was Gingrich. South Carolina Republicans threw away the rule book. And the Senate Presidents’ Forum hasn’t asked me back to any of its confabs, possibly because I got it wrong. I keep telling y’all, you can’t trust political parties. They really shafted me on that one (and the governor, too — some of those establishment Republicans who went with Gingrich did so, at least in part, to undermine Nikki Haley, who was backing Romney).
Anyway, I was reading this piece in The Washington Post this morning, talking about how you can’t go by history to predict Rick Santorum’s chances this year:
Here’s a good rule of thumb when it comes to figuring out who will get the Republican presidential nomination: The guy who didn’t get it the last time will get it the next time. Ronald Reagan lost the nomination to President Gerald Ford in 1976 and won it in 1980. George H. W. Bush lost it to Reagan in 1980 and won it in 1988. Sen. Bob Dole lost it 1988 and won it in 1996. Then there was a break. In 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush won the nomination against Sen. John McCain, who then won it in 2008. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lost it in 2008 and won it in 2012.
And that brings me to Rick Santorum. The former senator from Pennsylvania won 11 states in the 2012 nomination contest, “coming in a respectable second in the GOP presidential primary season,” as The Post’s Karen Tumultyreported late last year. Santorum is so far back in the very crowded 2016 Republican field that he doesn’t even register on the latest Quinnipiac poll. But that doesn’t mean anything at this point. McCain’s campaign was on life support in July 2007. By March 2008, he clinched the nomination…
In other words, you can no longer rely on Republicans to do the traditional thing. Although you never know; maybe they’ll surprise you and do so.
And of course this gets me to wondering what SC Republicans will do this time. Who can say? This time, there are more wild cards than usual.
If this were 1988, or 1996, or 2000, or even 2008, Jeb Bush would be the winner of the SC Republican presidential primary, hand down. But not only is the party way less predictable now than it was then, there’s an extra complication: Lindsey Graham.
It’s very difficult to predict. Lindsey Graham is the Republican whom Republicans love to hate — particularly those of the newer, fringe variety. That’s why he often fails to get a warm reception at party functions, and also why he had so many primary opponents last year. But then, he walked all over those primary opponents, and on to easy re-election.
I’m not saying he wins the primary here. There’s an outside chance that he could, but at this point I’m saying he doesn’t. He doesn’t get crushed, either — he places, if he’s still in the mix at that point.
What Graham definitely does, though, is complicate things. For instance, he’s got some of the establishment types who might normally go for a Bush backing our senior senator instead — David Wilkins, for one. He also has some of the McCain organization working for him, such as Richard Quinn. (For a list of people helping the Graham campaign, click here.)
Meanwhile, we see another establishment type — Warren Tompkins — at the core of a strong Marco Rubio organization in our state. Another complication.
Set that against the fact that South Carolina Republicans have this thing for Bushes, and the fact they went last time for a guy who at this point no one would have predicted, and no one knows what’s going to happen here come February.