South Carolina: A political thicket of competing cultures and ideologies

The sun goes down over the history-rich city of Charleston, South Carolina. (Leonard Ortiz/Orange County Register/MCT)
The sun goes down over the history-rich city of Charleston, South Carolina. (Leonard Ortiz/Orange County Register/MCT) MCT

A tour through deep red South Carolina isn’t so much a trip through one state as it is a journey through a diverse political landscape.

Meandering back roads wind from the beaches of Hilton Head to the gaudy boardwalk of Myrtle Beach; from the quaint, conservative downtown of Greenville to the historic flamboyance of Charleston.

It’s a beautiful contrast, steeped in culture and rich in history specific to each region of The Palmetto State. But in a Southern society where politics is considered a blood sport, the starkly different cultures _ and their equally diverse political identities _ make for tough statewide campaigning.

“It is very much a challenge, because the things that you would touch upon and put an emphasis on when you’re campaigning in Upstate South Carolina could really cause you some heartburn with the more lasseiz-faire Republicans along the coastline,” said Chip Felkel, a Greenville, S.C.-based political analyst and consultant.

Pollsters and strategists boil it down to a simple distinction: South Carolina’s staunchly evangelical Christian Upstate, which includes Greenville and Spartanburg, and the more ostentatious Lowcountry, where the antebellum period still echoes through the cobblestone streets of Charleston.

“In Columbia they ask you, ‘What do you do for a living?’ In Greenville they ask you, ‘Where do you go to church?’ And in Charleston they ask you, ‘What’ll you have to drink?’” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican strategist who has advised several Palmetto State politicians, including Sen. Lindsey Graham. “Trying to appeal to both cultures is a significant challenge.”

It makes for a delicate balancing act, particularly with politicians who have to try and win over the state as a whole. Positions and public statements have to be just ambiguous enough to appeal to both Greenville church groups and Hilton Head retirees.

“The trick is to stay focused on issues that have a broader appeal,” said Felkel, who grew up in the Lowcountry before relocating to the upstate. “If you try to run two campaigns, it’ll backfire…you have to be smart and you have to stick to those issues that don’t divide.”

Graham, for instance, takes on topics _ like defense and national security _ that are important all across a state with a long military tradition and large number of veterans, and that helps him find the footing to bridge other ideological divides.

“In the polling we’ve done, there’s been a rising pod of concern about safety and national security,” said Richard Quinn, a Columbia-based pollster and strategist who has advised Graham. “That’s Lindsey Graham’s wheelhouse. He has kind of a national reputation.”

The key to winning the state, consultants said, was to steer clear of hardline stances on hot-button social issues. What the geographic difference boils down to is a difference between social and fiscal conservatism.

“In the upstate they really are interested in social issues as well as economic issues; in the Lowcountry, economic issues (and) not so much social issues,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University, who runs the school’s Palmetto Poll.

A commonly cited example is Charleston’s Rep. Mark Sanford, the disgraced former governor whose political career was sidelined by a highly publicized extra-martial affair in 2009. Despite his epic fall, Sanford re-emerged from the political dead in 2013 to comfortably win the U.S. House seat he once held.

Given the moral transgressions, strategists said he never could have made it outside the Lowcountry district he now represents.

“Mark Sanford could never, never have been re-elected to Congress from Greenville-Spartanburg,” Ayres said.

Although it’s home to deep red fiscal conservatives, GOP Lowcountry voters are not as hardline as their Upstate counterparts.

“They’re more capable of splitting their ticket,” Quinn said.

As Republicans look ahead to the 2016 presidential election, South Carolina _ whose quadrennial primary is an important GOP nomination stepping stone _ this year’s race to the November election could offer some lessons.

“In some ways we might be…a good analogy of what the national party faces on how people go out and campaign this year,” Felkel said. “The geography and the historic rivalries and the influx of whatever’s left of the tea party present a very interesting challenge for the 2016 candidate.”