IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Newcomers reshape South Carolina's GOP

The candidate with the best strategy for bridging the gap between longtime residents and a big influx of newcomers may well be the one who wins South Carolina's Republican presidential primary - one of the few early contests expected to have an outsized impact on the 2008 race.
Neil Weingarth, 74, a St. Louis transplant living in South Carolina's Sun City Hilton Head, says Republicans here sometimes are too soft on Democrats and earn the name of "RINO," or Republican in Name Only.Jim Davenport / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The candidate with the best strategy for bridging the gap between longtime residents and a big influx of newcomers may well be the one who wins South Carolina's Republican presidential primary - one of the few early contests expected to have an outsized impact on the 2008 race.

The new residents who have spurred the rapid growth of the Palmetto State's coastal retirement and resort communities in recent years are known locally as the "come heres," or "COME'-yas" as the term is pronounced with the Southern twang of the native "been heres." The newcomers have made the state even more Republican than it already was, but not necessarily more conservative.

The transplants tend to be more moderate on social issues like abortion and gay rights than the Christian evangelicals who have long dominated the state party. They are also generally more intense in their affinity with the GOP and their disdain for Democrats.

Moderate voters' values
Those distinctions have assumed greater importance with the South Carolina GOP determined to hold the first Republican primary in the South, probably on Feb. 2 or earlier. Candidates have been campaigning hard in the state for months, hoping a strong showing will provide momentum going into what is shaping up to be a decisive mega-primary of as many as 20 states on Feb. 5.

It's also a nuance that benefited Arizona Sen. John McCain's campaign in 2000 - although not enough for him to win the primary - and one that gives moderate candidates such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani more of a chance at winning votes here.

"You do have to be careful because all of them (the newcomers) aren't socially centered. The pro-life issue - they don't see that necessarily as part of the political debate. So they'll look honestly at somebody like Rudy Giuliani," said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who is backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

McCain, Romney and the other Republican candidates will gather in South Carolina next week for the second primary debate.

In the 2000 primary, then-Texas Gov. George Bush prevailed partly through strong support from Christian conservatives and establishment Republicans, while McCain performed best along the coast in communities like Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach.

Decade of dominance
"The Republicans coming in are more moderate. The Republicans that started up the party are, I'd say, very, very conservative - almost right wing," said Charles Aimar, an 82-year-old native of coastal Beaufort County who should know. He started out as a Democrat and served on the Beaufort City Council before forming the county GOP in his living room in 1960.

That was the decade the Republican Party gained steam in South Carolina. Against a backdrop of desegregation and the federal Voting Rights Act that gave black voters clout, conservative Democrats in the 1960s left the party in droves.

Within a decade, the GOP was bolstered by "come heres," who helped solidify the party's lock on power.

"If they weren't down here, we would not be the dominant party of Beaufort County, I can tell you that," said Pete Hall, 76, a native of Abbeville, S.C., and a former state GOP executive committee member.

Between 1970 and 2006, Beaufort County saw a nearly threefold population increase, growing from 51,136 residents to 142,045, according to U.S. Census data. It ranked third in population growth, behind only Horry County, which surrounds Myrtle Beach, and Dorchester County, a suburban haven for Charleston's workforce. Census survey data from 2000 shows one in three people living in Beaufort County then had moved there from outside South Carolina.

Accomodating Democrats
The come heres are rougher on Democrats than the been heres, Hall said.

"Those folks up North were all born Republican. They don't understand that just about everybody they talk to - if they're over 55 or 60 years old - they were Democrats at some time," he said. "Us Southerners have a lot of friends - very close friends, football friends, basic friends - that are Democrats."

Neil Weingarth, a come here from St. Louis who has served on the county GOP's membership committee, agreed that he and other transplants have brought to his retirement community of Sun City Hilton Head an intensity that the GOP natives sometimes lack. The newcomers have been known to bristle when been-here Republicans are too accommodating to Democrats.

"And when we feel that there is one, then the uncomplimentary name of RINO, which is Republican in Name Only, is tagged onto that person," said Weingarth, 74, a retired marketing executive.

Sun City will have six voting precincts in 2008, double the number it had in 2000. Weingarth said the conservative newcomers "will accept someone who doesn't yet completely agree with them as far as abortion and gay rights and that type of thing if they agree with them on the national issues of keeping the country safe."

For some Republicans, however, core social issues remain front and center. Jane Wedgeworth, for example, is an abortion opponent who has lived on Hilton Head Island for 26 years. She is troubled that Romney is a Mormon and put off by Giuliani's moderate stances on some issues.

"He marched in a gay rights parade," said Wedgeworth, 54. "How can I have him as a role model for my children?"