Against the Grain

In South Carolina, The Establishment Fights Back

Scalia’s death heightens the stakes in the presidential race and could affect down-ballot races.

Jeb Bush puts in a strong performance at the GOP debate in Greenville., S.C. on Saturday night.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Feb. 14, 2016, 7:34 a.m.

The sud­den death of Su­preme Court Justice Ant­on­in Scalia played only a small part in Sat­urday’s South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an de­bate. But in the days to come, it’s likely to re­fo­cus GOP think­ing on the high stakes of this pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. So maybe it wasn’t a co­in­cid­ence that the most ex­per­i­enced can­did­ates had their strongest per­form­ances on stage—and Don­ald Trump had his an­gri­est, least-dis­cip­lined show­ing in all the de­bates.

Here’s the cent­ral ques­tion: Will 30 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an voters in South Car­o­lina back a can­did­ate who ac­cused George W. Bush of ly­ing about 9/11, slammed Su­preme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, praised Planned Par­ent­hood, and an­grily at­tacked both Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz at to­night’s de­bate? Trump’s rhet­or­ic was a re­buke to Bush-led GOP es­tab­lish­ment, but his views went far bey­ond what even the party’s pop­u­lists be­lieve. George W. Bush is still pop­u­lar in GOP circles, the party has re­mained hawk­ish, and Roberts is still seen as a main­stream con­ser­vat­ive jur­ist. Mean­while, in gen­teel South Car­o­lina, his heated tone won’t play as well as it did in New Hamp­shire.

Jeb Bush emerged as the standout per­former in the de­bate, ef­fect­ively egging on Trump and con­trast­ing his gov­ern­ing re­cord with Trump’s bom­bast. But by do­ing so, he ce­men­ted the two poles with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party: Trump vs. Bush. The best-po­si­tioned GOP nom­in­ee will be someone unit­ing the two wings un­der one roof. Marco Ru­bio ef­fect­ively ar­tic­u­lated a sim­il­ar mes­sage as Bush, but mostly avoided the nasty squabbles that defined the South Car­o­lina de­bate. Mean­while, John Kasich was free to pro­mote his sunny brand of cent­rism without tak­ing much fire from his op­pon­ents.  

Cruz, for his part, was fight­ing a two-front war against Ru­bio and Trump. Both of his rivals called him a li­ar in mem­or­able ex­changes. And he didn’t get to show­case his leg­al chops, as he was ini­tially ig­nored (and later fact-checked) in the open­ing ques­tion about the im­pact of Scalia’s death. With Trump on the de­fens­ive, this was Cruz’s op­por­tun­ity to present him­self as the strongest al­tern­at­ive to con­ser­vat­ives. In­stead, he was un­der at­tack all night.

If Trump faded, Cruz didn’t get any mo­mentum, and all three es­tab­lish­ment-lane Re­pub­lic­ans got a boost, then the de­bate provided the in­gredi­ents for a con­tested con­ven­tion. Des­pite its con­ser­vat­ive dis­pos­i­tion, South Car­o­lina his­tor­ic­ally fa­vors main­stream Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates. If his­tory re­peats it­self, that’s en­cour­aging news for Bush and Ru­bio head­ing down the home stretch in the state.

TRAIL MIX

—To get a sense of wheth­er there’s enough polit­ic­al sup­port be­hind Re­pub­lic­ans’ plan to block Pres­id­ent Obama’s nom­in­a­tion to the Su­preme Court, play close at­ten­tion to the swing-state GOP sen­at­ors up for reelec­tion in 2016: Wis­con­sin’s Ron John­son, Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, New Hamp­shire’s Kelly Ayotte, and Ohio’s Rob Port­man. Re­pub­lic­ans have the votes to block Obama’s choice, but op­pos­i­tion won’t hold if the pub­lic turns against the pro­pos­al. And if the GOP’s Sen­ate ma­jor­ity-makers find them­selves los­ing reelec­tion in Novem­ber, such stalling would be a Pyrrhic vic­tory for the op­pos­i­tion.

—Here’s how Kasich views South Car­o­lina: He’s spend­ing two days next week in Michigan, less than one week be­fore Sat­urday’s primary. Michigan, a Mid­west­ern battle­ground with an open primary on March 8, is much friend­li­er ter­rain for the Ohio gov­ernor. “South Car­o­lina is [im­port­ant] for oth­ers who don’t have a top-two fin­ish yet,” Kasich spokes­man Chris Schrimpf told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

—One les­son learned from the Iowa caucuses and New Hamp­shire primary: When Re­pub­lic­ans at­tack Trump, he loses ground. When he avoids at­tack ads, he gains mo­mentum. In the fi­nal week of the Iowa cam­paign, Cruz’s cam­paign and su­per PAC spent mil­lions on ads ques­tion­ing his con­ser­vat­ism and were aided by a su­per PAC run by former Mitt Rom­ney ad­viser Katie Pack­er. The Cruz cam­paign stopped go­ing neg­at­ive on Trump in New Hamp­shire, with just Pack­er’s su­per PAC ads re­main­ing on air. (All told, just 7 per­cent of all the ads aired in Iowa and New Hamp­shire were anti-Trump, ac­cord­ing to The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port’s Eliza­beth Wil­ner.)

Trump’s win­ning co­ali­tion was very broad as a res­ult of the Cruz-Trump cease fire. He won 32 per­cent of wo­men voters, 32 per­cent of col­lege gradu­ates and 31 per­cent of voters in house­holds mak­ing more than $200,000. He only lost a dozen of the 234 towns and cit­ies in the en­tire state. Com­pare that to Iowa, where Trump’s co­ali­tion more closely re­sembled his rhet­or­ic. In Iowa, en­trance polling show Trump only won 21 per­cent of col­lege gradu­ates—and just won 21 per­cent of the vote in af­flu­ent Dal­las County, a white-col­lar bell­weth­er.

In South Car­o­lina, that bodes well for Ted Cruz, who is already on the air with hard-hit­ting ads against Trump, and the win­ner of the Ru­bio-Bush skir­mish in the state. If the elect­or­ate in Iowa is more like South Car­o­lina, it raises the like­li­hood that can­did­ates will fit more neatly in their ex­pec­ted lanes—Cruz run­ning strongly with evan­gel­ic­als, Trump best with work­ing-class whites, Ru­bio win­ning the most-prag­mat­ic con­ser­vat­ive voters, and Bush hop­ing to win vet­er­ans and over­per­form in the old money con­fines around Char­le­ston. (Kasich needs to over­per­form low ex­pect­a­tions; he doesn’t have a nat­ur­al con­stitu­ency down South.) That would set up a very com­pet­it­ive four-way race.

—Even if Hil­lary Clin­ton wins the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion against Bernie Sanders, some glar­ing weak­nesses have been ex­posed in her primary fight against the so­cial­ist sen­at­or. She’s strug­gling to gen­er­ate en­thu­si­asm with young voters and un­der­per­form­ing badly with wo­men—two cent­ral parts of the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic co­ali­tion. The fact that Sanders won wo­men by 11 points in New Hamp­shire is something that Team Clin­ton nev­er would have ever ima­gined a month ago. Or los­ing mil­len­ni­al voters by 4-1 ra­tios in both Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

There are some ad­di­tion­al signs that two oth­er core ele­ments of the Obama co­ali­tion aren’t par­tic­u­larly en­thused about Clin­ton. Her cam­paign is down­play­ing ex­pect­a­tions in Nevada, a state where more than one-third of the Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ate is non­white. Her cam­paign man­ager Robby Mook en­gin­eered her im­press­ive vic­tory over Obama in the 2008 caucuses, but now he’s claim­ing that Nevada’s demo­graph­ics more closely re­semble Iowa’s ho­mo­gen­eity. As Nevada polit­ic­al ana­lyst Jon Ral­ston poin­ted out, that’s a ludicrous state­ment. Clin­ton ag­gress­ively touted her sup­port for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, go­ing even bey­ond Pres­id­ent Obama’s act­iv­ism in a pitch to rally His­pan­ic sup­port. If they either don’t show up or don’t back her com­fort­ably, it’s hard to see en­thu­si­ast­ic His­pan­ic turnout in the state come Novem­ber.

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