In 2024 campaign, kingmaker reprise for South Carolina?

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina is accustomed to increased attention in the years leading up to presidential elections, with the state hosting the South’s first voting contests for several of the last cycles.

But even by those standards, 2024 feels different.

Democrats elevated South Carolina to the top of their presidential primary calendar, leapfrogging Iowa and New Hampshire. Republicans, meanwhile, could potentially have two homegrown South Carolina presidential candidates in the race, a prospect that has already caused friction among the state’s GOP circles of supporters.

A look at why so many political roads to 2024 will lead to South Carolina:

THE DEMOCRATS

Earlier this month, the Democratic National Committee approved its 2024 calendar, an effort to give a prominent voice to a more diverse electorate.

President Joe Biden had endorsed a plan placing South Carolina first on the party’s calendar for the coming presidential cycle, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan and Georgia.

Biden’s recognition of the role South Carolina played in reviving his 2020 campaign, after less-than-stellar performances in earlier-voting states, has been clear since his victory celebration three years ago in February.

“You brought me back,” Biden told supporters. His win built momentum that helped him plow through the Super Tuesday votes that followed.

Last year, in a fundraiser for South Carolina Democrats, Vice President Kamala Harris offered her gratitude, saying, “We see how South Carolina Democrats set President Joe Biden and me on a path to the White House. … Thank you, South Carolina.”

The Biden administration has keep close ties with the state, where Biden's roots run deep and include family vacations to the state, as well as friendships with late Sens. Fritz Hollings and Strom Thurmond, and lawyer Dick Harpootlian, a former state party chairman who is now a state senator.

On Monday, Harris will return to South Carolina to discuss the administration's advancements on broadband internet expansion, a top priority of Rep. Jim Clyburn, one of Biden's closest allies and the lone Democrat in South Carolina's congressional delegation. Other Cabinet officials visited last year.

While South Carolina Democrats have not won a statewide race since 2006, they have begun selling buttons, mugs and apparel flaunting the state’s new status, with the tagline “South Carolina Democrats Pick Winners.” But the party is undergoing a period of transition, with chair Trav Robertson announcing this past week he would not seek another term after six years in the job.

Looking ahead, Robertson noted the regional financial impact that could be felt from the early position of South Carolina, where media markets — and the campaign advertising dollars spent in them — bleed into surrounding states.

“We have long advocated that South Carolina’s position in this process has been extremely beneficial to North Carolina and Georgia and to Tennessee,” Robertson told The Associated Press. “The impact of this is going to be felt for a generation.”

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HOMEGROWN GOP CANDIDATES

Nikki Haley's official launch to her 2024 presidential campaign, in downtown Charleston two weeks ago, was steeped in references to her six years as South Carolina's governor.

“It's a great day in South Carolina!” Haley said, a nod to her gubernatorial catchphrase that she for a time required state Cabinet agencies to use when answering public phone lines.

Haley, the first woman and Indian American to lead the state, also cloaked herself in references to accomplishments during her time in office, including creating jobs. She mentioned leading the state “beyond hate and violence," a reference to the shooting of an unarmed Black motorist by a white police officer and the slayings of nine Black parishioners by a self-avowed white supremacist.

She did not explicitly mention the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in 2015 after the church shootings — a move she pushed for after years of publicly supporting its presence.

With former President Donald Trump already in the 2024 race, Haley — who served two years as his U.N. ambassador — became the first major Republican to challenge him for the nomination.

Some of South Carolina’s top Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, have endorsed Trump, whose 2016 victory in South Carolina’s primary helped solidify GOP support behind his campaign.

Haley has lined up support from at least one member of the state’s congressional delegation, Rep. Ralph Norman. Rep. Nancy Mace, whom Haley endorsed for reelection last year, has said that, for now, “my powder is dry” when it comes to the 2024 White House race.

But Tim Scott, South Carolina's junior senator, has been making moves that seem to put him on the verge of formalizing his own 2024 bid. The day after Haley's launch, Scott was in Charleston himself, speaking at a Charleston County GOP dinner his team characterized as part of a “listening tour.” Days later, both he and Haley were in Iowa, which holds the GOP's first 2024 votes.

Scott's potential entry into the race has led to some awkwardness among the state's Republicans, many of whom have been supporters of both him and Haley.

Catherine Templeton, who served in Haley's administration, said Haley and Scott are calling the state's Republicans seeking support, a process she characterized as “uncomfortable.”

“Generally, a Scott Republican and a Haley Republican are pretty similar creatures, but it is a game of addition, so both candidates are being deferential,” Templeton said. "They are saying, ‘If I can’t be your first, I’d like to be your second.’ You won’t find them criticizing each other, but ultimately, it is uncomfortable to choose between friends.”

Templeton won't say whom she plans to support and says she expects a similar waiting game among GOP voters and donors in South Carolina.

“People are waiting to see what Tim does before they make a decision," she said. "But Nikki is in either way.”

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WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON?

The 2024 season in only getting started in South Carolina, just as in the other early states. Next month, the state plays host to one of the first leadoff, multicandidate events, when Palmetto Family sponsors its Vision '24 conference in Charleston.

So far, one announced candidate — Haley — is scheduled to attend, though potential ones, including Scott and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, are set to come. Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are among those yet to RSVP.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

Meg Kinnard, The Associated Press