'Reddest state' has reputation for political back-stabbing


AMERICA:South Carolina has a reputation for choosing the eventual Republican nominee, but also for dirty politics, writes LARA MARLOWE

WILL SOUTH Carolina vote with its head or its heart today? Will it choose the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, in the hope that he can fix the economy and beat President Obama, or will it opt for Newt Gingrich, a fellow southerner and a fighter who has tapped into the Palmetto state’s sense of wounded pride and resentment? When the former candidate Rick Perry said this week that South Carolina was “at war with the federal government”, he struck a chord with the state’s inhabitants. I heard Governor Nikki Haley explain twice in the same day how Washington was thwarting her at every turn.

The justice department has blocked the state’s draconian anti-immigrant legislation, and the voter identification law which Republicans hoped would discourage African-Americans from voting in this year’s election. The new Boeing factory in Charleston, which the Obama administration delayed in a row over trade union rights, is used as an example of the federal government stopping job creation with frivolous regulations.

A potent mix of evangelical Christianity, numerous military bases, gun rights activists and anti-trade union fervour make South Carolina “the reddest of red states”, says Robert Rosen, an attorney, historian and community leader in Charleston. The state “has been at war with the federal government since 1800”, he continues, first over tariffs, then nullification – South Carolina claimed the right to nullify any federal law – then slavery, leading the state to secede and precipitate the Civil War.

History matters here. Republican state senator Glenn McConnell, a Civil War re-enactor, spent $30,000 to commission a replica of a Civil War canon, which he keeps in his garage. Bobby Harrell, the speaker of the state assembly, who this week endorsed Gingrich, has built his career on the idea of restoring South Carolina to its pre-Civil War wealth, influence and grandeur. A few days ago, the burghers of Charleston held a party to mark the 205th birthday of Robert E Lee, the president of the confederacy.

In every primary since 1980, South Carolina has chosen the eventual Republican nominee. “We pick presidents,” is an oft-heard boast. “They use it to justify the state’s early position (in the primary process) to people who treat them like a dumb, racist state,” says Robert Behre, political correspondent for the Charleston Post and Courier. “There’s a desire to keep that streak intact. The fact that so many believe that Romney will win the nomination nationally really works in his favour.” South Carolina also has a tradition of what Rosen calls “negative, stab-in-the-back, dirty, last-minute politics” going back to Lee Atwater, who was Richard Nixon’s hatchet man and master of dirty tricks.

You have only to watch the barrage of attack ads to see how nasty this race has been. Observers say Governor Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, won the 2010 election in a backlash from chivalrous voters who were outraged when in the last days of the campaign two men claimed to have had sex with her. John McCain lost to George W Bush in 2000 because of a smear campaign that emphasised his adoption of a dark-skinned daughter from Bangladesh.

Until Newt Gingrich surged in the polls in the last three days, it was assumed that Romney would win. In South Carolina, voters are not registered by political affiliation, so Democrats like Rosen can vote in the Republican primary. He will cast his ballot for Romney “because he’s the only one who has any sense”. Despite their hankering for Gingrich and Ron Paul, Rosen believes a majority will nonetheless “hold their noses and vote for Romney”.

Behre, the newspaper man, expects the results to resemble the 2008 primary, when John McCain, the moderate, establishment candidate, beat Mike Huckabee, the evangelical, social conservative, by 33.2 to 29.8 per cent. The state has divided geographical identities, Behre explains: the southern “low country” and coast, which was settled by English gentry, is Episcopalian and tolerant of other religions, while the north is home to descendants of fundamentalist Scots-Irish Protestants from Pennsylvania. The former voted for McCain and will vote for Romney; the latter chose Huckabee and are expected to opt for Romney’s opponents.

As a war hero, McCain might have been easier to swallow. “In my wildest imagination, I never would have believed South Carolina could vote for Mitt Romney,” says Rosen. “He was governor of Massachusetts. Massachusetts is a bad word in South Carolina; a red flag. They hated Ted Kennedy here. They hate everything about Massachusetts: the Puritans, the Yankees, the Union army, the condescension of the pseudo-intellectuals at Harvard.” Like Obama and Romney, Rosen holds a degree from Harvard law school. “We have bumper stickers here that say, ‘We don’t care how you did it up north,” he says. “The South Carolina I know would vote for Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich. I wouldn’t write them off yet.”