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Think Gowdy had a bad day questioning Clinton? Think again

Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Benghazi committee, during former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the House Benghazi committee, during former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony. AP

When Rep. Trey Gowdy visibly struggled to answer whether any new information had been uncovered by his Benghazi committee’s 11-hour grilling of Hillary Clinton last week, things looked bad.

Visibly tired, he seemed to draw a blank and shrugged.

“I don’t know that she testified that much differently today than she has the previous times she testified,” he said. Then he added that he would have to check the transcript.

The clip played repeatedly on news shows. Democrats called on House Speaker John Boehner to disband an “abusive, wasteful and obviously partisan effort.” Republican critics said the investigation had done Clinton a favor by making her look presidential. A Democratic congressman even compared Gowdy to Draco Malfoy, a manipulative bully from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.

In the following days, the South Carolina Republican’s face was all over mocking political cartoons and editorials across the country, many saying that his job as chairman of a taxpayer-funded mission to derail Clinton’s campaign had wrecked his credibility and would ruin him politically.

Well, not everywhere. It turns out that Gowdy’s performance likely had the opposite effect in his home state.

“The only negative comment I’ve heard here is about his hair,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who advised Gowdy when he first ran for a local prosecutor’s job.

Fox News called the committee a “total wipeout” for Gowdy, citing a source in a top GOP presidential campaign saying that Clinton “looked presidential and was in command” during the hearing.

“This has only helped him in South Carolina, not that he needed any help, and I think he’s got a lot of political chips he’s earned in this,” Woodard said.

The loudest criticism of Gowdy’s committee, that he is wasting taxpayer money to damage Clinton’s 2016 White House bid, is a plus in his home state.

“Any of the arguments that this turned out to be a partisan attack against Hillary Clinton, that’s not hurting him with his constituents who really don’t like her,” said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

“When they saw the Republicans going after her, they thought grilling her for 11 hours is great, go at it.”

This is where the Civil War began. Fighting for lost causes gets you nothing but adulation here.”

Scott Huffmon, Winthrop University

Critics’ emphasis on whether the questioning brought out new information from Clinton probably was not as important to many of those watching the committee, analysts said. What they wanted to see was Clinton being aggressively interrogated. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, provided that.

“The committee laid out the case, pointed out the groundwork for the role that Clinton played, and that’s what a prosecutor would do. They don’t expect new information on the stand, they tell the story. So maybe that’s what Gowdy was doing,” Vinson said.

Most of the nation’s front pages the day after the hearing seemed to agree that being interrogated in fact strengthened Clinton by making her look cool, calm and collected, practically an 11-hour campaign ad giving her a chance to show off her expertise on policy matters.

“What drives the narrative in the rest of the country is not the same as what drives it in the Palmetto State,” said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and polling director at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

“Everybody made a lot of her facial expressions, but the way the base saw it, here she is talking about Americans who died with this condescending look on her face,” he said. “‘I’m sorry, is the death of an ambassador boring you?’ That’s how it’s going to play with the base here in South Carolina.”

The high-profile hearing highlighted the importance of this same conservative base for Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential race, as almost every candidate rushed to be seen supporting Gowdy’s investigation – some more cautiously than others.

“The attacks on Trey’s work are growing stronger and more intense. You know this means he is getting closer to the truth,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “For those who want to avoid responsibility for their actions regarding Benghazi, Trey Gowdy has become their worst nightmare.”

The attacks on Trey’s work are growing stronger and more intense. You know this means he is getting closer to the truth. For those who want to avoid responsibility for their actions regarding Benghazi, Trey Gowdy has become their worst nightmare.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Jeb Bush tweeted that Clinton’s role as secretary of state during the attacks “deserves scrutiny,” and Marco Rubio asked his supporters to “stand with Trey Gowdy as he uncovers the truth about Hillary Clinton’s actions.”

Mike Huckabee sent out a barrage of tweets during the hearing, including “Chris Stevens died, Hillary Clinton lied, and the Obama administration tried to cover it up.” Carly Fiorina had previously said that Clinton “has blood on her hands.”

Far from sinking him, it appears the name recognition Gowdy has gotten through the committee, both statewide and with the national party base, will propel his future political career.

In Washington, it’s been no secret he wants to leave Congress to return to South Carolina and has his eye set on a federal judgeship. There is an opening on the state Supreme Court and there will be another – for chief justice – in a year, but with his two children now grown up, some are saying there may be less of a draw to return.

“He’s always been an odd duck as to what he wants to do, but he’s in an enviable position in South Carolina,” Woodard said.

What is clear is that Gowdy is positioning himself to have a lot of options.

“We also have the gubernatorial race in 2018, which you can never rule out. Even if he is not seriously thinking about it, chairing this committee would shore him up with his base,” Huffmon said.

$4,880,074 Cost of Benghazi committee as of Oct. 29, 2015.

Graham has suggested Gowdy as a possible Supreme Court judge, something fellow Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott has echoed.

For now, Gowdy says he will continue the work of his committee, which will eventually conclude with a final report. Republicans say they have no plans to scale back the investigation now that Clinton has testified. The next steps will include interviews with former intelligence and military leaders, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former CIA directors Leon Panetta and David Petraeus.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

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