Congress

For one big night, Jeff Duncan is South Carolina’s GOP power broker

Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington AP

Rep. Jeff Duncan knows his is not the first name to pop up when someone mentions the members of the South Carolina congressional delegation.

But is the upstate Republican angling for more recognition, as governor or something else?

In an interview with McClatchy, Duncan demurred.

“When people think about the delegation nationally, or even in Washington, they think about Trey Gowdy or Tim Scott. Lindsey Graham. Mark Sanford to some degree,” said the upstate Republican of his more high profile GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill. “I’m not one of the first names that comes to mind, and that’s fine. As long as the voters of the Third District remember me when they go to the ballot box, I’m fine with that.”

Yet once a year, Duncan gets a taste of the spotlight — and, to a certain degree, a smidgeon of power. The occasion is his “Faith and Freedom BBQ,” his annual fundraising event and tribute to first responders and service members that has, six years since its debut inside a local restaurant, grown into the largest gathering of conservatives in the state.

Now held at the Anderson Civic Center, the event has become the place to see and be seen by some of the state’s most powerful and influential Republicans. This year, the barbecue drew Gov. Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant and former state labor secretary Catherine Templeton. All have either declared their 2018 gubernatorial bids or are mulling entry into the race.

But before Nikki Haley decamped from the Governor’s Mansion to become United Nations ambassador and McMaster, her lieutenant, became the de facto incumbent, Duncan was rumored to be eying a run for governor. On Monday, Duncan insisted his barbecue is not intended to be a launching pad for governor or anything else.

“Look, I gotta work with these folks, whether they’re the governor or whether they’re the president, and it’s an opportunity to be exposed to them, see who I am, have them come to this part of what I call God’s country,” Duncan said. “Constituents, people who come, they don’t just come from South Carolina, they come from multiple states, and to have an opportunity to come and interact with elected officials and prospective elected officials is great for them.”

Still, the event is a big political deal. In the months before the 2016 presidential election cycle, it was a “must” for Republicans seeking the party’s nomination. Special guests and speakers included Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, along with now-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. They all became presidential contenders and wanted support in the state’s closely-watched early primary.

This year, the keynote speaker was Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican and Army National Guard veteran. Last year the keynote speech was delivered by Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff who was just pardoned by President Donald Trump.

The barbecue is also a chance for Duncan to show off as the most outspoken social conservative in the South Carolina congressional delegation. Gowdy has enjoyed a national following for his role in the Benghazi investigation, Sanford is a quotable former governor and Graham and Scott are senators. Duncan, meanwhile, has carved out a niche, rarely editing himself thanks to a concern for “political correctness.”

“He seems to have less fear of anything he says coming back to haunt him, knowing the district the way he does,” said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University politics professor who has doubled as a GOP consultant and has watched Duncan, his former student, over the years. “He’s much more at ease with himself and at ease with his job and people here seem to like him very much.”

On Monday night at the Anderson Civic Center, Duncan delivered remarks that were true to his persona. He spoke of a country that needed to return to God and extolled Trump’s desire to “make America great again” in all ways, from border security to reining in the national debt. With great emotion, Duncan thanked law enforcement officers such as those who saved the lives of his colleagues in June, when a gunman opened fire on the Republican Congressional baseball team as it was practicing on a Virginia field.

Duncan also served as emcee for the program before a 1,000-person crowd. He introduced McMaster and Bryant, who gave speeches not so subtly designed to appeal to 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary voters. Ernst, who Duncan called a “rock star,” described how she went from a farmer’s daughter to military commander – perhaps the stuff of future presidential stump speeches.

They all gushed over their host, inviting multiple rounds of applause for the Congressman. Duncan, who at one point turned his cell phone to the audience for a Facebook live stream, beamed.

Contact: Emma Dumain at edumain@gmail.com

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