South Carolina Republicans could not believe their luck when they learned that Nancy Pelosi was coming to fundraise on behalf of the S.C. Democratic Party in Greenville, a county in one of the reddest regions of the state.
Immediately, the S.C. GOP put the word out to start making signs and dust off their Make America Great Again hats for a counter demonstration at the downtown Hyatt Regency, where the speaker of the U.S. House is set to address the party faithful Friday night.
“We’re going to give her a southern welcome,” said Joe Jackson, the Republican National Committee’s S.C. communications director, who previewed poster slogans designed to ridicule Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
“When she comes to South Carolina, it’s going to remind people she’s there to raise money to help the national Democratic Party,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a fierce Trump defender told The State. “She ain’t helping.”
At another moment in political history, Democrats might have shuddered at the prospect of Pelosi’s presence in South Carolina.
For so long, the California Democrat has been cast as a radical “boogeywoman” whose endorsements and affiliations with centrists in red states amounted to a kiss of death.
Some S.C. Democrats worry Pelosi will have that same effect on candidates in tough races now, said Jalen Elrod, first vice chairman of the Greenville County Democratic Party. Elrod supports Pelosi’s involvement but concedes he’s heard people “express concerns” about her upcoming visit.
Though Pelosi is headlining the event to raise money for all S.C. Democrats, Democrats are aware their most vulnerable statewide elected incumbent, U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham in the 1st Congressional District, is being cast by the GOP as the sole beneficiary of the fundraiser.
“He’s in the (U.S.) House, she’s the speaker of the House, so he’s coming down here to raise money for him,” Jackson said.
Charleston’s Cunningham, accordingly, will be staying far away from Greenville Friday night.
But things are different now. There are new Democrats for Republicans to vilify. And at a polarizing moment in American politics, nearly 13 months out from a presidential election, many S.C. Democrats are actually excited about Pelosi coming to energize the base.
“The first female speaker in the House is coming to South Carolina and speaking to Greenville Democrats,” Elrod said. “I don’t think there can be anything more powerful and more galvanizing.”
“I have no concerns,” agreed Ennis Fant, a Greenville County councilman, who plans to attend the dinner. “We’re happy to have her in the Upstate.”
How Pelosi plays in SC
South Carolina has had a complicated relationship with Pelosi over the years, in large part due to Republican efforts to implicate local Democrats in her brand of liberal politics.
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Spratt, a moderate Democrat from York County, was the House Budget Committee chairman and a member of Pelosi’s leadership team. He lost his seat after nearly 30 years in the GOP wave election of 2010 thanks, in part, to Republicans’ successful attempts to tie him to the House speaker.
That same year, Democrat Rob Miller — who the party thought stood some chance of unseating U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson after the Republican’s infamous outburst of “You lie” during President Barack Obama’s health care address to Congress — announced he would oppose Pelosi as his party’s leader. But Miller also declined to return the money she had given to his campaign.
In 2013, Republican Mark Sanford made national news campaigning in a special election for his old congressional seat by debating a cardboard cut-out of Pelosi, who he said was a proxy for his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
And in 2015, a year after losing his second gubernatorial campaign against Republican Nikki Haley, state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, told Politico that Democrats needed a more “moderate” figurehead to build the party tent.
“Nancy Pelosi in South Carolina does not play well,” Sheheen said then.
Katon Dawson said he would have suspected Pelosi would have come up with an excuse not to visit the state Friday as jitters within the party began to take hold.
The former state and national GOP chairman recalled years ago when Howard Dean, then the Democratic National Committee chairman, was set to come to South Carolina. But as Democrats began to fret about the optics of Dean’s presence, his flight was suspiciously canceled.
Organizers said Pelosi has no plans to cancel.
And perhaps now she is less polarizing than she once was, thanks to the rise of new far-left Democrats who conservatives can cast as villains.
“I think if AOC was coming to South Carolina, there’d be a lot more cringing among Democrats,” said former state Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Fairfield, referring to self-described Democratic Socialist U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
“I can remember 10 years ago, when (former U.S. Senate Democratic Leader) Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were four-letter words in South Carolina. I would say now it’s more of a shrug. I mean, who cares?”
‘No longer afraid to campaign in Greenville’
As of Wednesday, tickets to the fundraiser to hear Pelosi speak alongside House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the state’s most influential Democrat, were almost sold out.
Still, Pelosi’s current levels of political toxicity, particularly in connection to the impeachment issue, will be put to the test Friday and in the days that follow.
While a new national poll shows support for impeachment at 46% — higher than it was prior to the launch of the U.S. House inquiry — there is no way to quantify support for the effort in South Carolina.
But the RNC’s Jackson said S.C. Republicans are banking on the issue being controversial and divisive enough that Pelosi’s visit to the state will energize conservatives to fight Democrats who want to overthrow the president.
Though Cunningham has not said he supports his party’s impeachment inquiry, Jackson still made it clear they won’t be satisfied until the congressman fully distances himself from the speaker.
Cunningham’s campaign confirmed the congressman would not attend the event, but they declined to comment further as to the reason or respond to the GOP’s efforts to tie him to Pelosi’s visit.
S.C. Republicans also say the Democrats’ decision to hold the fundraiser in the more right-leaning Upstate gives conservatives the home turf advantage to define the narrative.
“I find it extremely odd,” Dawson said. “Greenville is where we win all of our elections.”
That includes state party chairman Trav Robertson, who hails from nearby Anderson and considers Greenville a “second home.”
Though Republicans have held steady gains in the county, particularly during presidential elections — where straight party voting has bounced from 56% in 2008 and nearly 59% in 2016 — Democrats have made efforts to improve their performance there too.
Calling Greenville a new “battleground county,” Robertson noted former state Rep. James Smith’s run for S.C. governor in 2018 against incumbent Republican Henry McMaster.
Smith lost the county by nearly 16% to McMaster, but it was by a smaller percentage than Sheheen’s loss to Haley during his 2010 campaign, where Greenville gave a 20% advantage to the Republican.
“The reason we wanted to do this event in Greenville is to show Democrats who have been on the ground consistently fighting there that we’re no longer afraid to campaign in Greenville and we’re going to take the fight to Republicans in Greenville,” Robertson said.
Robertson bristled when asked how he would respond to Democratic criticisms of having extended the invitation to Pelosi, given there might be at least some political risks.
“Whoever that critic is, maybe come run for the chairman of the Democratic Party,” he said. “That individual is not responsible for raising money for a state party and reinvesting into campaigns across South Carolina.”
Former state Rep. Brown, who is lukewarm on Pelosi’s politics and won’t be attending the fundraiser, also shrugged off Republican threats to use the speaker to frame the debate.
“Let them turn themselves purple waving signs and shouting absurdities at Nancy Pelosi,” he said.
“I’m sure she hears and sees it enough.”