If you paid any attention to South Carolina politics in 2013, chances are it was only to note with mild consternation the re-emergence of disgraced former governor Mark Sanford. That the man who lied to his wife and constituents about using state funds to conduct an extramarital affair in 2009 could become the state’s newest member of Congress this past May seemed to suggest that many South Carolinians did not care to make a break with even the most recent past.
South Carolina’s newest leaders are not your grandfather’s Republicans.
But in years to come, Sanford’s remarkable turnaround may be but a scandalous footnote within a very different narrative about Palmetto State politics in the early 21st century. South Carolina has long been known as the bellwether of the Republican Party’s primary season. Until Newt Gingrich defeated Mitt Romney there in 2012, voters had endorsed the eventual GOP presidential nominee in every election since 1980. But is it possible that the state is taking on a new role and setting the stage for the next GOP revival? Could South Carolina help the GOP form a real “rainbow coalition” to match the diverse set of speakers it put on stage at its 2012 Convention?
Walk down the streets of South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, with its Confederate flag at the state’s capitol building and its statue of Strom Thurmond, and it’s hard to believe the state could be the harbinger of anything new or forward looking. Add in the state’s history of racially divisive politics and the fact that it consistently ranks near the bottom nationwide in the number of women and minorities holding public office, and you grow even more skeptical. Slave ownership, which was widespread throughout much of the state’s early history, shaped not only race relations in South Carolina, but its distrust of the outside world. As historian W. Scott Poole, an associate professor at the College of Charleston, describes it, “There’s this sense in South Carolina’s political culture of being different, of having different institutions that have to be defended.”
But there’s a newer South Carolina emerging, one that defies the good-ol’ boy stereotypes, and the state that once launched the Civil War could be poised to reshape the American political map — and the Republican Party. South Carolina’s newest leaders are not your grandfather’s Republicans. With an Indian-American woman, Nikki Haley, as governor, and Tim Scott the first black Republican senator since Reconstruction, the face of leadership in the state is unquestionably changing. Haley, who was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and raised a Sikh (though she identifies as Christian today), is not only the state’s first female and first minority governor but, at 41, she is also the youngest state governor in the United States and a rising star in her party.
The Latino population in South Carolina has grown faster than in any other state since 2000, with a 148 percent increase.
Scott, a Tea Party favorite like Haley, has largely has kept a low profile in the U.S. Senate — unlike his fellow freshman Ted Cruz — but he is popular with GOP voters and has been active in reaching out to minority communities on behalf of his party. And though Haley and Scott have often been at odds with the GOP establishment in the state, both appear poised to win re-election when they go before voters next year. Despite approval ratings that have been consistently below 50 percent inside her state, Haley is an increasingly popular figure in the party nationwide and is sure to attract big name (and big money) support next year. And while Scott’s fellow South Carolina senator, Lindsay Graham, has a 36 percent disapproval rating (to Scott’s 6 percent) and faces three primary opponents in next year’s elections, Scott has yet to draw a single GOP challenger for his seat.
Deeper economic and demographic trends are also bubbling beneath the surface in South Carolina. Newt Gingrich may have defeated Mitt Romney in 2012, but with Michelin and BMW building new factories in South Carolina and an influx of economic migrants and retirees entering the state, the GOP’s base in the state is shifting from the rural, social conservatives to economic conservatives that vote with their pocketbooks. According to Scott Buchanan at the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, the dramatic influx of non-Southern migrants into the state’s coastal towns and cities means that what was once one of the most rural states in the country now houses nearly 70 percent of its population in urban and suburban areas.
But perhaps the most significant demographic trend is that the Latino population in South Carolina has grown faster than in any other state since 2000, with a 148 percent increase that sees Latinos and other non-white groups at almost 36 percent of the state’s total population (the highest percentage since LBJ signed away the South for “a generation” with the 1964 Civil Rights Act).
Still, before we replace the state’s median lanes with rainbows, let’s remember that South Carolina is still a solidly conservative state, and for all the diversity they lend to the face of the party, leaders like Haley and Scott do not inject much in the way of ideological diversity. And Graham’s challengers are further to the right on most issues than he is.
But if GOP leaders are serious about the party’s mission to attract women and minorities into a “bigger tent” after poor showings in both the 2008 and 2012 national election cycles, then they should consider making South Carolina a major pole in that tent. After all, with the state’s demographics changing and Democrats eyeing the landscape closely, it may not be long before such a shift becomes less a matter of party expediency than sheer political survival.
Why you should care
Because the state that launched the U.S. Civil War may be poised to reshape the political map once again.