Elections

Does the GOP’s ‘big tent’ still exist? SC Republicans wrestle with party under Trump

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, says immigrants are doing well under Trump’s presidency

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says Hispanic and African American communities are doing well under President Donald Trump’s presidency, despite inflammatory White House rhetoric.
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U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says Hispanic and African American communities are doing well under President Donald Trump’s presidency, despite inflammatory White House rhetoric.

In 2016, lifelong Republican Lisa Savage walked into a voting booth in Charleston and cast her vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“Honestly, I cried when I left the voting booth,” Savage, 56, told The State this month, calling her first vote for a Democratic presidential candidate a “defining” moment in her life.

Had Clinton won, Savage said she would have worked with the Republican Party to find a viable candidate to beat her in 2020.

But almost four years later, the mother of three who runs an online business has left the GOP. She says she became frustrated by the party’s identity politics and what she sees as a retreat from its core principles: free trade, free thinking and fiscal responsibility.

“There’s no room for anyone who does not support the president,” said Savage, who at first was reluctant to be quoted criticizing the Republican Party, but later agreed to an interview with The State.

Savage has joined a crowd of S.C. GOP voters who say they feel forgotten by their party.

They don’t like Trump’s acerbic rhetoric, particularly his comments about women and minorities. Most see Trump — under whom the federal deficit is expected to hit $1 trillion in 2020 — as fiscally irresponsible.

Some have left the party. Others say they are holding on by a thread. Several say they’d welcome a primary challenge between former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, and Trump — though they understand Sanford faces long odds.

Or they are considering voting for a Democrat if the opposite party’s nominee is moderate enough.

“Politically homeless is probably a good description,” said Scott Singer, 59, a former Aiken County councilman for 12 years, who helped found the Aiken Republican Club but said he is no longer involved. “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot in the Republican Party for a fiscal conservative, principle-based moderate. And that’s unfortunate.”

It’s a movement that Drew McKissick, the state chairman of the Republican Party, shrugs off.

Trump won in the 2016 general election by 14 percentage points in South Carolina, and according to a February Winthrop Poll, 82% of Republican leaning voters said they support Trump.

“You’ve had the president re-engage a large group of people who were actually former independents,” McKissick told The State last week, in part referring to voters who felt ignored under Democrat Barack Obama’s presidency. “Obviously, we’re doing a great job of addition, and the Democrats are playing subtraction.”

McKissick noted the increase the state party has seen in donations, meeting attendance and volunteers.

“The bottom line is the Republican Party is bigger now” than anytime in the state party’s history, McKissick said.

Over the course of a few weeks, The State interviewed more than a dozen longtime Republican voters who criticize their party’s evolution. While some were willing to speak publicly, several spoke only on the condition that they not be quoted, some concerned they might alienate friends, colleagues or clients.

Some of these voters have held party positions. Most have given money to Republican campaigns and also have campaigned for Republican presidential candidates in South Carolina.

They all had one thing in common: With Trump as president, they feel abandoned by a party they have loved for years.

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‘The ‘big tent’ no longer exists’

Like many GOP voters, Savage fell in love with the Republican Party in the age of Ronald Reagan. The California native was the first president Savage voted for in college. She appreciated his family values and thought he was strong on national defense.

That’s not how Savage — raised in a conservative Catholic home and considers herself pro-life — said she would describe Trump.

For Savage, who has two daughters, it was Trump’s comments about assaulting women in a hot-mic moment caught on the Access Hollywood tape that should have disqualified him in 2016. Many other Republican women — and men — agree.

She said she also has been exhausted by the turnover in the Trump administration. Savage, who’s married to a U.S. Marine veteran, said it was “huge” when Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — a retired four-star Marine general — resigned in December.

In July, Savage left the S.C. Republican Party, detailing her disdain in a July 27 email to McKissick, the state party’s chairman, and the party’s executive director, Hope Walker.

This followed her resignation as a Charleston County GOP executive committee member after she lost her voting privileges, she said, over her tweet in support of Democrat U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, who stunningly beat Republican Katie Arrington in the November midterms. The seat previously was held by Sanford, who now is flirting with a primary run against Trump.

“Although I’ve voted for Republicans since 1984, I no longer consider myself a Republican,” Savage wrote in her email. “I am a conservative, not a populist. I do not support huge federal spending. I do not support a president who has been proven to be a pathological liar. Most importantly, I do not support cowardice masked as party unity. The final straw for me was the revelation that the S.C. GOP was considering not having a presidential primary. To me, that proves that the ‘big tent’ no longer exists.”

Her email ended: “Please remove me from your rolls and all future communication.”

When asked last week, McKissick and Walker told The State they were unaware of the email.

‘Amoral president’

The party’s challenge with women voters is real, said Matt Moore, the former chairman of the state’s Republican Party.

Apparently looking to address that challenge, the Trump campaign will send female surrogates to battleground states Thursday, Politico reported. The effort coincides with the 99th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. South Carolina was not one of the states listed in that story.

“I hear that from far too many women who are frustrated with the party’s lack of ideas, and, when I say ideas, I mean solutions to what the party needs to do more to address the needs of people … things like health care,” said Moore, a GOP consultant who works to promote solar energy and other issues.

Trump’s rhetoric — and the lack of criticism he has received from GOP leaders — has repelled Republican men interviewed for this story, too.

“It matters,” Singer said. “You can’t claim to be the party of character and values and then ignore the behavior of an amoral president. I can’t support a man who’s the exact opposite of everything I’ve tried to teach my boys to be. It is perplexing.”

“He blows a racist dog whistle,” said Upstate entrepreneur John Warner, 59, who said his connection to the GOP stretches back to college, when he was chairman of Clemson University’s College Republicans and campaigned for Reagan. “And he’s excellent at it. He does it intentionally and he does it consistently.”

Trump’s comments, particularly on social media, has been a thorn on the side of Republicans, even those of whom don’t say publicly.

“What I hear a lot: I wish the president would tweet a little bit less,” Moore said. “I hear that consistently.”

Missed opportunities?

In addition to women, Republicans also are worried about alienating Hispanics — one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country — as the president ramps up his immigration rhetoric.

That could present a missed opportunity for Republicans to expand in states like South Carolina that are becoming more diverse, said state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, who said he’s been “a Republican since it wasn’t cool.”

“We’ve always regarded ourselves in years gone by as the ‘big tent’ party, and now it doesn’t seem that way from my perspective,” said Clary, who does not plan to run for re-election in 2020.

The concern was addressed by South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, at a stop last week with home builders.

“I wish people would watch what they say,” Graham told reporters in Columbia. “It’s not about somebody’s last name. It’s about trying to fix a broken immigration system.”

But Graham, a staunch Trump apply, wouldn’t go as far to say the president was contributing to that problem.

“I’ve told the president the way you talk to people matters,” Graham said. “I’m concerned more about Democratic policies than I’m concerned about Republican rhetoric. This rhetoric thing is a two-way street.”

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U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tells South Carolina home builders an ongoing trade war and tariffs with China will “cause some pain,” during a meeting of the Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina in Columbia. Tom Barton tbarton@thestate.com

‘It’s a short-term romance’

Today’s Republican Party is now unfamiliar to GOP voters interviewed by The State.

“The party now is driven by one personality and that being the president of the United States,” said Rep. Clary. “That is not reflective of real Republicans that I know.”

That change has left some GOP voters disillusioned with the party.

“I know people that are just done, they’re out,” said Ivan Mathena, 34, of Travelers Rest, who described Trump as having a “buckshot approach” to politics. “They’re done. They won’t donate their time anymore. Even people that are still in, they’re not motivated.”

Several Republican voters echoed a version of the comment Reagan made decades ago when he left the Democratic Party for the GOP.

“I didn’t leave the Republican Party,” businessman Warner said. “The Republican Party left me.”

Republican strategists shrug off notions those alienated GOP voters are gone for good.

“It’s a short-term romance” with the Democratic Party, said Dave Woodard, a retired political scientist with Clemson University who managed and consulted on numerous Republican campaigns in South Carolina.

“We pick the party at some point in our lives for a reason,” said Scott English, former chief of staff to former S.C. Gov. Sanford, who said the playbook on the Republican Party has been ripped apart, but called the nature of politics evolutionary.

But English added the uber progressive streak in the Democratic Party “can’t be appealing.”

And without knowing individual cases, McKissick said if the voters are conservatives, “they are not going to be away from the party for very long because they won’t be served by the other side of the street.”

Some voters told The State they would be willing to support former Vice President Joe Biden, should he be the Democrat’s nominee.

They say their vote is more against Trump than for a Democrat. Others said they would consider not voting.

“If there is no Republican challenger to Donald Trump, I’m probably just going to abstain,” said Rouzy Vafaie, 40, a former second vice chair of the Charleston County GOP.

Vafaie continued: “I could be giving up a right. I was born in Iran, I lived in Iran and lived there during the Iran Revolution. ... I know first-hand how valuable these freedoms are. I was in a country that didn’t have those.”

Republican leaders say they’re aware of frustrations among party members.

In July, Savage tweeted a picture of her meeting South Carolina’s U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, with the caption: “That awkward moment when you tell your U.S. Senator that you’re leaving his party because you can’t support a racist president. It’s been 30+ years, but I’m out.”

Savage said she wanted Scott to know suburban women like her were leaving.

“Yeah, I understand her frustration about the level of toxicity and corrosion in the public space,” Scott told The State last month. “I don’t expect anyone to be incredibly comfortable with where things are nationally, not just simply our party but over all.”

Editor’s Note: Are you a Republican or Democrat considering in 2020 voting for the opposite party? Email mschechter@thestate.com.

The State reporter Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.
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