Standing beneath the grand rotunda of the South Carolina Statehouse Saturday, Donald Trump—the 45th President of the United States—delivered the case to some of the state’s most influential political figures why they should send him back to the White House in 2024.
The only declared Republican candidate for his party’s nomination in 2024, Trump’s remarks before several hundred people and journalists assembled in the cramped confines of the state capitol building were intended as a show of his influence in the state, featuring endorsements not only from its popular Republican governor, Henry McMaster, but major figures like U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressman Russell Fry, whose victory over Trump impeachment supporter Tom Rice in last summer’s Republican Primaries came largely thanks to the former president’s influence and endorsement.
The event, however, felt like anything but, falling well short of the electricity of a pre-primary rally in the Palmetto State in the middle of last year that drew thousands of people to the grounds of the Florence County Airport on a cold and rainy Saturday.
Rather than being remarkable for who was in attendance, the most difficult-to-ignore facet of the event was who wasn’t there. Figures like South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick—a close ally of the former president who earned Trump’s endorsement in a contentious bid to lead the state party in 2021—was out of town for a meeting of the Republican National Committee, where he narrowly defeated Trump’s endorsed candidate for the position of RNC co-chair.
His former ambassador to the United Nations, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was also absent, as was current U.S. Senator Tim Scott, as the pair weighed their own potential bids for the presidency. Several top officials—including the state’s Trump-aligned Attorney General, Alan Wilson, who is currently preoccupied with the high profile murder trial of Alex Murdaugh in Colleton County—were also absent, affirming reporting from the Washington Post earlier in the week Trump was having challenges encouraging people to turn out.
For all intents and purposes, the only confirmed Republican candidate for president so far was back to just that: just another candidate, looking to consolidate support and convince skeptical Republican voters he was still the one best-equipped to lead their party to the presidency in a state with a reputation for picking presidents.
“This kind of reminds me of that Ariana Grande song: ‘Thank You, Next,'” Alex Stroman, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party and a onetime staffer on Trump’s 2016 inaugural committee told Newsweek. “I think a lot of Republican voters like what like what Donald Trump did, but they’re ready for somebody else.”
And at this juncture of the race, Trump—who has long acted as the party’s presumptive nominee in 2024—has already found himself behind.
His former Vice President, Mike Pence, has maintained a consistent presence in the state, meeting with local faith leaders and conservative activists ahead of a likely bid for the White House.
Mike Pompeo, his onetime Secretary of State, had been running digital advertisements in South Carolina as well as other early primary states like Iowa, seeking to raise his name recognition amid his own alleged presidential ambitions.
Scott and Haley have also been proactive and, while neither has given a clear indication of running for the presidency, both have not exactly ruled it out, with Haley suggesting in a recent Fox News interview that Trump’s posture in the race would have no impact on whether she decides to run. One recent report in online outlet The Dispatch this weekend predicted Haley could make her 2024 presidential bid official as soon as next month.
“If I’m this passionate and I’m this determined, why not me?” Haley said at the time.
Looming largest among the group, however, is Gov. Ron DeSantis, the bombastic Florida Republican who has quickly emerged as the most direct threat to Trump’s ability to secure the nomination.
While focused on Florida, DeSantis has already begun courting top players in South Carolina politics, most notably hosting some of Trump’s top South Carolina political donors—including two of Trump’s own political appointees—at a fundraiser for his gubernatorial campaign in Charleston last spring in what some saw as a clear shot across Trump’s bow.
“Ron DeSantis has done a good job cultivating some relationships here early,” Rob Godfrey, a top South Carolina political strategist and onetime aide to Gov. Haley told Newsweek in an interview. “If we’re talking getting into the heads of the folks running campaigns of potential competitors, he held that event in the Lowcountry—the backyard of some candidates who are seriously looking at the race. That’s bold in and of itself, but there’s no one who’s ever said Ron DeSantis is an understated guy.”
Though Trump remains the favorite to take the nomination in 2024, some polling in a handful of states have begun to show DeSantis in a position of increasing viability among early primary voters.
One poll released by Marquette University’s Law School earlier in the week showed DeSantis leading Trump by nearly 30 points among Republican voters in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup for the party’s nomination for president, while a similar poll released Thursday by the University of New Hampshire showed the former president behind DeSantis by a dozen points among Granite State Republicans.
An additional (and somewhat divisive) survey in South Carolina ahead of Trump’s visit by the right-leaning South Carolina Policy Council showed similarly positive numbers for DeSantis, suggesting that the Trump-friendly political landscape in South Carolina could be softening for a challenger.
According to that poll—which some in Trump’s orbit have questioned—the former president trails DeSantis by approximately 19 points among likely Republican voters in the Palmetto State, with 54 percent of all surveyed agreeing “the country would be better off if neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump is elected President in 2024.”
“A lot of people who, like Trump’s policies, or even like him personally, feel like it is time to move on,” Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the SCPC and former chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party told Newsweek. “My sense is that things have changed a lot since this past midterm election result, which was disappointing to a lot of Republicans.”
Ruling Trump out of the race this early would be careless, however. As the former president, Trump still maintains intangible advantages other candidates don’t. He enjoys extremely high name recognition, and still enjoys high approval ratings within his own party despite myriad ongoing legal battles and negative press. He is also very well-funded, boasting a war chest few candidates will be able to match dollar-for-dollar.
Most crucial of all, Trump remains almost impervious to attacks from his left flank as well as his right, with a rabid following willing to turn on anyone who falls out of Trump’s good graces. Even amid open speculation of a primary challenge, few of the prospective candidates—Scott, Haley, Pence, even DeSantis—have been willing to openly attack the former president, particularly with more than a year to go until the start of the 2024 presidential primaries.
“At this early point in the race you sort of have to ask, is anybody willing to take a punch from Trump? a veteran South Carolina political strategist currently employed by a potential Trump challenger told Newsweek. “Eventually, you’re going to have to, but are they actually going to punch back? Or are they gonna sort of throw beanbags at Trump and say they love them? That to me is like a super interesting question.”
Even DeSantis, who is considered the best bet to defeat Trump, has appeared unwilling to openly challenge him, even as all signs indicate his name will be on the ticket. While DeSantis has sought to boost his national profile with red meat issues to rile up the Republican base, he also has a number of liabilities that make him vulnerable, including a vote he made as a member of Congress to cut Social Security as a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
“Trump is going to gut him on that,” the strategist said. “There’s all sorts of issues where I think the Trump team is just piling up on research, ready to just drop it on him.”
Trump’s biggest hurdle, however, is maintaining control of a movement that he’d helped shape, but was never his to begin with, one fueled by a coalition of Tea Party conservatives and disaffected populists that allowed him to pull the support necessary to defeat then-challenger Hillary Clinton in 2016.
While his willingness to break longstanding political norms and challenge the political establishment helped accelerate him to the top of the Republican field in 2016, the former president has since had to contend with whispers he has become the same establishment he sought to upend amid his recent support of mainstream Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, whom DeSantis opposed. (McDaniel ultimately won the RNC chair vote in a landslide Friday afternoon, while McCarthy outlasted his party’s right-wing to become Speaker of the House after 15 rounds of voting earlier this winter.)
“I’ve said this to everybody repeatedly, ad nauseam,” Ryan James Girdusky, a Republican strategist, told Newsweek. “The essential problem with Donald Trump is that his campaign theme in 2016 was that ‘the establishment is corrupt, and they’re screwing you.’ And now its main campaign theme is ‘the establishment is corrupt, and they’re screwing me.’ No one likes to hear a rich person complain about their life.”
In some regards, Trump also seems to be beginning to take his cues from others in the movement, rather than helping define it.
On Thursday, Trump’s campaign unveiled a 2024 education policy plan heavily steeped in the culture war rhetoric championed by figures like DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin amid their efforts to eradicate “woke” curricula within their states. And the national press has noticed: “So far, Trump appears to be chasing DeSantis with his campaign’s policy rollouts,” the New York Times‘ Maggie Haberman noted Friday.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ brand is proving to be immensely popular—enough that he has been able to flip a state once considered among the nation’s most competitive into solid-red territory.
“You don’t win by that margin just because you’re really good at copying Trump,” Girdusky said. “You do that because you’re an effective governor.”
While few have been willing to make their move yet, the blood is in the water, with the landscape in South Carolina closely resembling the environment seen in the state during the 2008 Democratic Primary between Clinton and then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
While Clinton was considered the clear favorite in that race, boasting deep-seated relationships with political organizations and religious groups in the state, Obama used the platform he was given to outline a vision that set him apart from Clinton, introducing primary voters to a new way of looking at the country and its issues. After narrow wins in Iowa and Nevada, Obama would dominate South Carolina’s primary on the road to the White House.
Nearly one decade after Trump’s initial rise to power, a similarly fresh vision might just be exactly what South Carolina voters—and other early primary voters—could be looking for.
And if one domino falls, they all fall.
“I think Trump’s biggest problem facing him is that he has to win Iowa or New Hampshire,” said Stroman. “If he doesn’t, it he loses either one of those, the race is over. The only power he has right now is that he was elected president and that he’s still very popular. It’s not like it was eight years ago when he lost in those states and he was able to come back and win here. If he loses Iowa or New Hampshire, he’s done in South Carolina.”