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.”
This year the slime could reach a high water mark.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision, which elevated political donations to the level of protected political speech, independent groups can raise and spend unlimited funds to bludgeon candidates.
In Iowa, negative TV ads from a pro-Romney PAC called Restore Our Future buried former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
In tit-for-tat fashion, casino mogul and Gingrich ally Sheldon Adelson has loaded $5 million into to a pro-Gingrich super PAC called Winning Our Future. The money will pay to air ads aimed at stopping Romney’s rise in South Carolina where a recent TIME/CNN poll has him at 37 percent.
In South Carolina, such groups are likely to elevate the level of dirty politicking in the primary, said Tom Turnipseed, a former Democratic state senator who in 1980 was a victim of one of Lee Atwater’s most notorious attacks.
When Turnipseed ran for Congress against a GOP incumbent, Atwater accused him of having been “hooked up to jumper cables” — a reference to four electroshock therapy treatments Turnipseed underwent for depression between the ages of 16 and 23.
Then political operatives called nearly every registered voter in a key county to alert them that Turnipseed, who is white, was a life member of the NAACP.
Turnipseed never saw Congress.
“It was no lie, but he just wanted everybody to know it,” Turnipseed, now a progressive Columbia attorney, told TheDC about Atwater’s attacks that led to his defeat.
These days, Turnipseed warned, dirty tricks are even easier.
“With electronic media you get it quicker and more of it,” he said. And with the Citizens United ruling in place, he added, “you can just do any damn thing at all.”
The negative campaigning won’t be restricted to television, though, South Carolina Democratic operative Phil Bailey told TheDC.
One story that went underreported in Iowa, he says, was the number of negative attacks leveled at candidates via direct-mail flyers and telephone calls, both delivery methods that Palmetto State politicos have fine-tuned.
Bailey predicted that sleazy hit pieces will be micro-targeted in South Carolina, pounding mailboxes, inboxes and phone lines. While super PAC TV ads wage a massive air war in every living room, he said, those sorts of hand-to-hand tactics will fly under voters’ collective radar.
Meanwhile, Republican consulting firms are using new computer software to target voters in ways they weren’t able to in 2000 or 2008.
Emails and robocalls aside, however, soap opera-worthy stories could still be the A-bomb that explodes into South Carolina primary week. And as in soap operas, sex sells.
Just ask Will Folks, a popular Columbia blogger and consultant.
Last year, when Gov. Nikki Haley was campaigning for the post, Folks alleged on his website that he had once carried on a brief affair with the married mother of two when he was working for her in the state legislature.
Beyond releasing phone records showing the two had talked roughly 700 times and long into the night, Folks never proved his allegation. Haley denied it.
He later endorsed her for governor after pro-Haley forces returned fire with a barrage of vicious personal attacks. Haley later ran an ad in which she said, “I’ve seen the dark side of our state’s politics.” She went on to win her four-way primary handily.
Some speculated that the entire episode might have been orchestrated by Haley’s campaign only to help her. (Haley is campaigning for Mitt Romney in the state.) Folks still maintains the affair was real, and says he experienced the Palmetto State’s political mud-pit firsthand — and from both sides.
“People will do anything to win elections, and people in South Carolina have been known to believe anything they hear,” he told TheDC.
“You put those things together and you’ve got a recipe for craziness.”