Politics

01.10.12

On to South Carolina: The Nastiest Primary State

As the candidates exit New Hampshire for South Carolina, they’re doing more than going from north to south. Michelle Cottle on the fight ahead in the capital of dirty politics.

Let’s get ready to rumble!

As the GOP’s political circus rolls out of New Hampshire, attention now swings toward the great state of South Carolina.

Actually, that’s inaccurate. Truth be told, the Palmetto State drama has been in full swing for several days now, as the campaigns’ southern arms engage in what South Carolina does best: slinging mud.

Already, Ron Paul has ads up branding Rick Santorum a deceitful, cash-grabbing dirtbag and “serial hypocrite.” Santorum supporter and erstwhile presidential wannabe Gary Bauer is starring in ads (funded by the Emergency Committee for Israel) bashing Paul’s foreign policy. The pro–Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future is circulating flyers accusing Newt Gingrich of being a pro-choice backer of China’s one-child policy. Most impressive of all: the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future is spending $3.4 million to run anti-Romney ads cut from a 27-and-a-half-minute documentary about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. With a message that boils down to GREEDY CORPORATE RAIDER MITT ROMNEY IS THE REASON YOU LOST YOUR JOB, YOUR HOUSE, YOUR MEDICAL INSURANCE, AND YOUR BELOVED PET LABRADOR, the ad campaign is brutal enough that it would impress the late godfather of political knife-fighting, Lee Atwater.

Atwater, you will recall, cut his teeth in South Carolina.

“We understand backyard brawls,” chuckles Chad Connelly, chairman of the state GOP. “That’s been part of the political scene here for years and years.”

“They’ve had a lot to get pissed off at each other about by this point,” says Donehue.

If Iowa is all about the nice, and New Hampshire is all about the quirky, South Carolina is all about the nasty. Politics in the first Southern primary state is a blood sport, with no blow considered too low. Personal attacks are de rigueur, and facts are useful only insofar as they can be twisted beyond all recognition.

Among the nastier morsels Republican voters have been served up over the past several years: former senator Fred Thompson is a brain-dead, skirt-chasing, fancy-pants, faux conservative; Gov. Nikki Haley is an adulterous slut; and, of course, Sen. John McCain fathered black babies out of wedlock.

Kinda puts Team Hillary’s 3-a.m.-phone-call slap at Obama in perspective, doesn’t it?

State political veterans say multiple ingredients influence this culture of red-on-red violence.

Part of it boils down to timing: South Carolina falls early enough on the primary calendar that it draws enormous amounts of campaign money and attention, creating a permanent cottage industry of hard-brawling political animals. “It’s an ultrahot political environment you usually see only in Washington,” says GOP strategist Wesley Donehue, until recently Michele Bachmann’s senior adviser in the state.

At the same time, the final push in South Carolina takes place after much of the early politesse has been stripped from the race and tempers are starting to fray. “By the time the candidates roll out of Iowa and New Hampshire, everybody has got the gloves off,” says Connelly.

“They’ve had a lot to get pissed off at each other about by this point,” agrees Donehue, noting that the early willingness “to stand on a debate stage smiling pleasantly while your opponent attacks you has gone out the window.”

There is also the issue of state pride, a factor enhanced by the fact that the candidate chosen by South Carolina Republicans has gone on to become the nominee in every presidential cycle since 1980.

Connelly asserts that the S.C. electorate takes seriously its responsibility to “pick the right person.” This involves “finding out who has the thickest skin to take on Democrats in the fall,” he says. “It’s part of the vetting process.”

Of course, plenty of states fancy themselves serious about choosing a nominee who can go the distance. And some folks might argue that there is a significant difference between “taking the gloves off” and jamming one’s thumbs into the opposition’s eye sockets.

That’s where the fundamental rowdiness of South Carolinians enters the picture.

“South Carolina has a high tolerance for negative ads and nasty attacks,” says Donehue.

“It’s the Southern in us. We have this redneck mentality that we like to fight.”

(Donehue should know: in the 2008 cycle, he was the brains behind the viciously anti-Thompson website PhonyFred.org, which caused the Romney campaign major grief when it was discovered that Donehue had ties to a Romney adviser.)

This corner of the old South has always been combative and “contrarian by nature,” agrees another veteran operative, who wished to remain anonymous because he now serves a politician from a kinder, gentler state. “It’s not by accident that the Civil War started in South Carolina,” he says, nor that  “there were more revolutionary war battles fought in South Carolina than in any other state.”

At the same time, says Connelly, people understand that it’s all part of the game. “We’re kind of used to it. We don’t think it’s unusual. It’s what the primaries are all about.”

Indeed, candidates who don’t get feisty—especially once they themselves have been attacked—risk raising questions about whether they have the necessary fire in the belly. “If someone pushes your honor and you don’t fight back, people will think a lot less of you,” says our anonymous operative.

Bottom line, say the locals: any candidate looking to claim the prize of South Carolina better be ready to fight—hard and quite possibly dirty—for the win.