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South Carolina GOP divided as Nikki Haley and Tim Scott gear up for 2024

"I think there will be no coronation in South Carolina," one local GOP chairman in the state said. "Nobody is guaranteed our vote.”
Tim Scott and Nikki Haley.
Tim Scott and Nikki Haley.NBC News / Getty Images

South Carolina has long been one of the most important early primary states. In the past 40 years, the winner of the state’s GOP primary has gone on to win the party’s presidential nomination in every election except one. 

For 2024, state political leaders say they expect a truly unpredictable environment, with the state thrust onto center stage. State Republicans are getting ready to choose among two “favorite children,” a former president who has already carried the state in a deeply contested primary and potentially others who look to draw significant interest.

Former President Donald Trump “is still very popular in the state,” said Steven Wright, the chairman of the Dorchester County GOP. “It’s still to be determined whether that popularity remains cemented. But I will say that we are very excited by the primary that is shaping up. I think there will be no coronation in South Carolina. Nobody is guaranteed our vote.”

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, as well as a former governor of South Carolina, announced her presidential bid in a video statement Tuesday, making her the second major candidate to jump into the primary after Trump, who announced after last year’s midterm elections that he was running. She's expected to give a speech Wednesday in Charleston.

The next day, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who appears to be building a presidential campaign infrastructure of his own, is speaking to the Charleston County GOP before he embarks on a listening tour that will take him to Iowa, the first state on the 2024 calendar.

The entrances of prominent South Carolina politicians could play a major role not only in the 2024 race but also specifically in their home state, which has weighed heavily on presidential contests over the past 40 years. Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina GOP primary has gone on to win the party’s nomination in every cycle it has been held except for 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bested eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney.

Haley and Scott, who have both won multiple statewide races and earned reputations as rising stars within the party, could ultimately split votes among South Carolinians who want the party to move on from Trump and gravitate toward more traditional conservatives — boosting his chances of winning another primary. In 2016, Trump won the primary with 33% of the vote, defeating Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who both won 22%. No primary was held in 2020.

“Do they steal from each other? And then, does Trump benefit from that?” asked Mick Mulvaney, a former member of Congress from South Carolina who was Trump’s acting White House chief of staff. “At the micro level, you’ve got to wonder, does Tim Scott take away from Nikki Haley’s support or from Donald Trump’s? And then the same goes for Nikki Haley, as well."

But Mulvaney said the dynamics of the primary that is shaping up might not lead to such a scenario's being a final blow for either a Haley or Scott campaign.

“Does it look bad to finish third in your home state? Probably. But maybe it’s different,” he said. “Typically, if you came in third in your home state, it’s the kiss of death. But this time around, I think folks recognize that it’s just unusual in that you’ve got a former president and two of the most popular politicians in the state.”

Polling of the South Carolina primary electorate is limited. In January, a Spry Strategies survey conducted for the South Carolina Policy Council found Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leading Trump by about 20 points in a head-to-head matchup (the survey reported a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points).

More recent national polls have found Trump with a significant edge over DeSantis or having closed the gap of DeSantis’ earlier leads. In a Monmouth University poll released last week, DeSantis and Trump were tied after Trump trailed by 13 points in December. The survey, which reported a margin of error of 6.1 percentage points, had Haley registering just 1% support. Scott wasn’t included.

South Carolina Republicans who spoke with NBC News said they’ve noticed voters gaining interest in DeSantis while noting that people are looking forward to seeing whether any prominent Republicans appear alongside Haley at her Wednesday kickoff speech. Last month, Trump appeared in the state with Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson, among other Republicans. 

“As far as from what I’ve heard, no one is saying a Gov. Haley or Sen. Scott jumping in the race somehow changes their calculation on who they’re going to support,” Wright said. “I think people want to hear from all the candidates.”

Barbara Nielsen, a former state superintendent of education, said that residents “respect” Haley “as governor and will listen to what she has to say” and that there is also “a lot of respect” for Scott and the work he has done on opportunity zones and seeking a compromise on policing reform. But she says she’s seeing more and more enthusiasm for a potential DeSantis bid over anyone else’s.

“Nikki and Tim are both homegrown,” she said, saying both would be able to raise significant money for a presidential bid. “So they would have a large following here.”

Wright said many people are waiting to see who jumps in, with Trump and DeSantis getting the most interest. But he noted the historic nature of Haley’s and Scott’s previous victories in the state — Haley was the first woman and person of color elected governor, while Scott was the first Black senator elected in the state — and said they were formidable politicians. 

“But I will say, Gov. Haley and Sen. Scott,” he continued, “both of them when they ran for office before, they were long shots. And I wouldn’t want to underestimate either of them.”

Trump tested his clout in the state last year, to mixed results. He sought to remove then-Rep. Tom Rice in a primary after Rice voted in favor of his impeachment after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and was successful in defeating Rice. At the same time, his bid to defeat Rep. Nancy Mace fell short, with Haley offering Mace her full-throated support.

“I think that, certainly, people here are willing to consider options other than Trump,” Mulvaney said.

Haley will have to navigate a checkered history with Trump. In 2016, she clashed with then-candidate Trump before she joined his Cabinet nine months later. Then, after Trump left the White House, she vowed not to run for president if he ran again, only to prepare a bid against him anyway.

A significant part of the Republican electorate not only remains fond of the former president but also is open to his false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. As Nielsen said: “We still have people down here fighting the last election.”

“You can’t go to a county meeting and not have some lady stand up and start yelling about paper ballots,” she said, saying there’s a need to move forward.

While South Carolina will get considerable attention with Trump, Haley and possibly Scott in the race, Mulvaney said some contenders might therefore bypass the state to invest more heavily in other early primaries.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, if you’re Mike Pompeo or, to a lesser extent, if you’re Ron DeSantis, do you really even spend any time here?” he said. “Why spend a bunch of time and money fighting over fourth?”