Republican Donald Trump’s boisterous throngs of S.C. supporters sent a resounding message Saturday to South Carolina’s political elite – we don’t want your establishment candidates.
The onetime reality TV star with populist appeal handily beat U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the state’s Republican presidential primary.
Rubio and Cruz nearly tied for second place. With 99 percent of the vote reported, Rubio led Cruz by roughly 1,000 votes. Both declared victory, saying the GOP race was down to three candidates.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson trailed in the race’s bottom tier.
Trump’s denunciation of the Republican establishment resonated with S.C. Republicans.
Bush, one of the favorites of the S.C. GOP, suspended his campaign after finishing a disappointing fourth. Bush inherited U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s backing and many of his supporters after the Seneca Republican abandoned his own long-shot presidential campaign in December.
S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed Rubio Wednesday in an attempt to give him a boost. Haley previously had criticized Trump’s combative campaigning as un-American. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Rep. Trey Gowdy also endorsed Rubio.
At his victory rally in Spartanburg, Trump couldn’t resist gigging Haley, pointing at Republican Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, who endorsed him last month in Lexington County, who was standing behind him. “I will take him over the governor anytime because we won,” Trump said.
Rubio and Cruz each declared victory despite falling short in state they could have won.
Evangelical voters turned out in droves Saturday, but Cruz — who won Iowa with their support — could not pull off a victory. Rubio, meanwhile, was endorsed by three of the state’s most popular politicians.
“We’re the only campaign that has beaten and can beat Donald Trump,” Cruz said at his Columbia fairgrounds rally.
Congratulating Trump on his win, Rubio said the GOP campaign started off with “many good people, many of whom, in any other year, would have been a front-runner.”
“But, now practically speaking, it's down to three. And I know that our campaign gives us the best chance, not just to come together, not just to unify our party, but to unify our country.”
Haley, Gowdy and Scott joined Rubio on stage in Columbia. With results still out, Rubio was winning only two of South Carolina’s 46 counties – Charleston and Richland – two of the three counties that former Massachussett’s Gov. Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite, won in 2012 in a landslide loss to Newt Gingrich.
Bush’s exit could be Rubio’s gain, said Lexington political consultant Walter Whetsell, who was backing Rick Perry’s presidential campaign and has remained unaffiliated since the former Texas governor dropped out.
“How does Rubio not inherit Bush's support from tonight in the next state? Who is a Bush voter who's going to convert to Trump?” Whetsell said. “As people drop out, Rubio is likely to be the beneficiary of that.”
Before all the results were in, Trump already was countering the idea that as other candidates drop out, their supporters will coalesce around a campaign other than his own. “As people drop out, I'm going to get a lot of those votes also,” he said.
Early in the returns, Trump’s supporters were chanting, “Trump, Trump, Trump!” When CNN called the election for Trump, a celebratory roar rocked the ballroom, and a tide of Trump signs waved in the air.
‘History on his side’
The political newcomer’s success has befuddled political insiders, who predicted early in the campaign that Trump would peak and fall. Instead, Trump led polls in South Carolina since late July, winning all but two polls since entering the race.
South Carolina puts Trump on a two-state winning streak, after his victory in New Hampshire. Trump finished second in Iowa behind Cruz.
Nevada Republicans will choose their favorite GOP candidate Tuesday.
Trump’s S.C. victory is expected to give him momentum heading into Super Tuesday on March 1, when the nominating contest spreads quickly across the South and West.
History has shown that the Republican who wins New Hampshire and South Carolina goes on to win the nomination, said Scott Buchanan, a political scientist at The Citadel. “Trump's certainly going to have history on his side in that regard,” Buchanan said.
Trump’s early focus on immigration issues – pledging to build a wall on the border and force Mexico to pay for it – paid off, exit polls show.
According to MSNBC, 47 percent of Trump’s backers listed immigration as their top issue, followed by the economy, terrorism and government spending.
A CNN exit poll found 45 percent of Trump supporters said undocumented immigrants working in the United States should be deported to their home country.
Jim Yates, who attended 13 Trump rallies during the S.C. primary campaign, drove an hour from his home in Laurens to be at Trump Event No. 14, the candidate’s Spartanburg victory party.
Yates, who is not Hispanic, wore a sombrero with a Trump bumper sticker attached to it to support his claim that Hispanics back Trump, despite the candidate's rhetoric.
But Yates also made it clear he backs Trump's tough stand on illegal immigration, particularly his pledge to build a wall at the Mexican border.
“We need to make sure we get that wall built and built fast,” said Yates, a 69-year-old retiree. “Illegal aliens need to go back and come back the right way.”
Trump also performed well among self-identified evangelical voters.
Cruz aggressively courted those religious voters, who made up 3 in 4 voters in the state’s primary, according to exit polling.
That turnout was greater than the two-thirds that typically show up, Buchanan said.
Attacking Trump for his past pro-choice position, Cruz had hoped a massive boost in turnout among the state’s faithful would propel him past Trump.
But Trump and Cruz tied with 30 percent support among evangelical voters, exit polls showed.
Trump’s critics also thought his attacks on his foes in the race, off-color language and criticism of former President George W. Bush, a popular figure in the state, would derail his S.C. campaign.
Instead, at the end of the night, Bush’s brother Jeb was the one leaving the race.
“You have to give the guy credit,” said Greenville political consultant Chip Felkel. “Whether you like him or not,” Trump has “a feel of what the mood of the electorate is right now,” tapping into its angst and anger, Felkel said. “Maybe substantive in this cycle doesn't matter.
“It didn't help Jeb.”
‘When you win, it’s beautiful’
The S.C. results call into question whether a so-called establishment candidate will be the Republican nominee.
If Trump goes on to win the nomination, South Carolina will have regained its reputation of picking the eventual nominee – tarnished in 2012 when S.C. Republicans went rogue and voted for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Before Gingrich, South Carolina was seen as the firewall protecting the GOP’s establishment candidate. If Trump now goes on to win the GOP nomination, it could signal that Republicans nationally are shifting away from establishment values, ranging from issues — such as free trade — to electing candidates with political experience.
Bush sounded warnings about a Trump nomination, indirectly referring to the GOP frontrunner, saying, "The presidency is bigger than any one person. It is certainly bigger than any candidate."
He noted he has had a front row seat to the presidency and seen “fallible men rise up to the challenges of our time with humility. ... I firmly believe the American people must entrust this office to someone who understands that whoever holds it is a servant, not the master, someone who'll commit to that service with honor and decency.”
At Trump’s victory party, supporter Gale Whiteford said she was ecstatic but not surprised that her candidate won so easily Saturday. “He's definitely going all the way to the White House,” said Whiteford, 45, who operates a restaurant with her husband in Laurens.
“He says exactly what he's thinking. And he's a tough man and a smart man. That's what this country needs.”
Addressing his supporters, Trump congratulated his foes, especially Cruz and Rubio. The crowd booed. Trump asked them to quiet down. “We go back to war tomorrow morning.”
“There's nothing easy about running for president,” Trump said with his wife, Melania, and daughter, Ivanka, at his side.”It's tough. It's nasty. It's mean. It's vicious.
“It's beautiful. When you win, it's beautiful.”