The field of Republican presidential candidates has left icy New Hampshire, but any warm welcome they’re expecting in South Carolina is likely to feel more like a blowtorch in the face.
The nation’s first-in-the-South presidential primary has historically turned politics into blood sport.
Whisper campaigns, push polls, mudslinging and false attacks are the coin of the realm in the state where the late Lee Atwater spawned a legacy of GOP-operative street hustlers who dominate the political culture. Indeed, political consulting in the Palmetto State might be the only career where a mug shot looks good on a resume.
“The state likes to present itself as a very friendly and genteel place, except when it comes to politics,” says FOX News contributor and former Jimmy Carter pollster Pat Caddell. “There is a level of sleaze in this state in politics that is really unmatched for how dirty it is.”
Spoken like a true South Carolina native.
As brutal as campaigning here might be, prevailing in the gateway to Dixie is critical. No Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has gone on to take the party’s nomination without first winning South Carolina.
And as the path to the White House winds through the back-country of Clemson, Aiken, and Myrtle Beach, it’s known to be littered with roadside bombs.
It was a decade ago that anonymous George W. Bush operatives spread an effective whisper campaign claiming that Sen. John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child — and also smeared his wife as a drug addict. Fresher memories come from 2008, when mailbags bulged with fake Christmas cards purporting that Mitt Romney had endorsed polygamy.
“We don’t have such a great reputation for cleanliness around here,” says Clemson University political scientist and consultant David Woodard, author of the book The New Southern Politics.
“It goes back a long way,” he told The Daily Caller. “It isn’t recent. It’s a longstanding history here of real bare-knuckles brawls.”
Part of that is because a great source of wealth and power in South Carolina comes from involvement in politics and government, according to John Crangle, a retired attorney and Limestone College political science professor who has run the state chapter of Common Cause for 25 years.
“South Carolina is like a third-world country,” he says, “and in third-world countries the government is the biggest aggregator of wealth. So because the government in South Carolina is a way in which people can enrich themselves personally, the fight for public office is very intense.”
Underlining his point, Crangle continued: “Because South Carolina has such a history of being a corrupt state … it’s ultimately a fight to get those political positions, which in turn give you the opportunity to take bribes and steal.”
The resulting political culture has also created a protected class of highly paid and highly influential operatives.
“In New York if you want to a be a big shot you go to Wall Street; in Washington if you want to be a big timer you become a lobbyist,” Crangle said. “In South Carolina if you want to make some fast money … you get involved in the political consulting business.”
Former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, who is working for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, says history does play a role in the state’s scrappy reputation.
“It’s one of the 13 original colonies; it’s one that fought the King of England to become a country,” he says. “It’s got a maverick kind of unique place in politics where we take it seriously, and it’s a tough place.”