Welcome to the Jeff Duncan primary.
The what? Exactly. If you’ve never heard of Representative Jeff Duncan, you’re not alone. The former banker and auctioneer isn’t well known outside his conservative South Carolina district. But Republicans running for president know Duncan as a man who is quietly emerging as an unlikely yet crucial figure in the process to pick the Republican nominee for 2016.
In South Carolina this past weekend, more than a dozen Republicans from across the country paraded across the stage of the “Freedom Summit” in downtown Greenville, assuring the Chick-Fil-A-fed crowd they are looking at the Next Conservative President of the United States. And a big part of why they’re here is to impress this obscure third-term congressman.
South Carolina hosts the first primary in the South, and is a key bellwether for grassroots conservative support. Since the birth of the modern primary system, only one Republican candidate—Mitt Romney—has lost the state and then gone on to win the nomination. And not only does Duncan’s 3rd Congressional district include the I-85 corridor and the richest source of conservative votes in the state, Duncan himself has become a kind of folk hero to Tea Party activists. He was named the most conservative congressman in America by the influential Heritage Action, and is among the handful of GOP members to vote against John Boehner for Speaker not once, but twice.
Duncan co-hosted the South Carolina Freedom Summit with Citizens United, which attracted 2,000 activists on Saturday, and hosts his own “Faith and Freedom BBQ” fundraiser every August, a sort of “Tom Harkin Iowa Steak Fry” without all the steaks and liberals. Duncan’s BBQ drew Senator Marco Rubio and 1,400 locals to his upstate district last year and is a already hot ticket for potential speakers going into next year’s presidential primaries.
How did Duncan, the one-time walk-on for the Clemson University football team who readily admits he saw no playing time, become one of the biggest gets in the race to the White House for the 20-something Republicans who say they want the job?
Duncan himself didn’t offer much insight at first.
“To see my name on all these banners is sort of humbling because it’s not something I seek out,” he said in an interview across the hall from the stage that was festooned with 20-foot “Rep. Jeff Duncan” banners and signs. But in the same breath he referred to himself as an “unabashed” conservative, and that seems to be the point for the audience, a crucial block of potential GOP primary voters in the second-in-the-nation primary state, and the marquee candidates looking for his time and advice.
“Whether the candidates seek me out, I’m not looking for that,” Duncan said. “If they do, they do, and I don’t mind telling them what it’s going to take to win as a conservative in South Carolina.”
He ticks off “leadership,” “vision,” “American exceptionalism,” and “inspiration” on the list of qualities he and his fellow South Carolina conservatives will be looking for, but not electability.
“We want a winner, of course. We want to make sure we can pick someone who can win over the Democrat,” he said. “But when I hear the term ‘electability’ I kind of scrunch my nose up a little bit and go, really? They say, ‘Ted Cruz can’t win.’ Really? Have you talked to Ted?”
Duncan has. He’s talked to a number of the other hopefuls, too, including Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee, who called Duncan at home last weekend to say his granddaughter’s 3rd birthday would keep him away from the Freedom Summit, but he promised to be in South Carolina soon, which he was.
How about Jeb Bush? “I haven’t talked to Jeb,” Duncan said. “So I’m not going to talk about him.”
If Bush plans to make a play in the state, Duncan would be a good place to start his courtesy calls. Along with Senator Tim Scott, the wildly popular senator based in Charleston who was once Duncan’s roommate in Washington, activists and GOP operatives increasingly point to Duncan as the man to meet.
“Jeff Duncan’s got the golden stamp,” said Dave Woodard, Duncan’s former professor at Clemson who also eventually became his pollster. “To be friends with Jeff Duncan, you’re not going to get any further to the right than that. It’s a great place for him to be.”
For a party whose base has marched to the right in the last eight years, only to see accused squishes emerge as their nominees for president, the next GOP candidate claiming to be “severely conservative” is going to need a few good character witnesses. And Duncan is the perfect guy to vouch for you in a state where three out of five likely primary voters call themselves born-again Christians.
Duncan’s friends know he’s not the sort of flashy extrovert who makes headlines in politics, but even his old foes say there’s more to Duncan than meets the eye.
Alan Ray, now a South Carolina adviser to Senator Ted Cruz, ran one of the six Republican campaigns for the open House seat that Duncan eventually won in 2010.
“In terms of an endorsement a campaign would be looking for, obviously Rep. Duncan is on the top of the list,” Ray said. “Like Sen. Cruz, Jeff’s a guy who is not going to bend on his principles and that’s why he’s one of the top people being sought.”
Duncan likely won’t endorse a candidate until after his BBQ this August, where he’ll have his favorite three candidates as featured speakers, an invitation campaigns are already jockeying for.
“Let’s put it this way,” Ray said. “We would be thrilled to be invited. If the other campaigns are smart, they would be too.”