It's been pretty easy to vote Republican in South Carolina for the last two decades thanks to the recurring mantra about less government and lower taxes. But now with President Donald Trump's European Summer Vacation blitzkrieg across Brussels, London, Scotland, and Helsinki, mainstream, old-school Republicans are finding support of the Trump GOP to be somewhat uncomfortable.
"Elections have consequences," one longtime state GOP analyst observed. "Actions have consequences. This is not helping."
That's because the president looked too cozy with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin — decades of Cold War rhetoric still make just about anything Russian, with the exception of vodka, to be suspect. And while many people in the Palmetto State may not pay much attention to global politics, when an American president who constantly shouts "no collusion" sides with the Kremlin over the American intelligence community about a Russian cyberattack on our election system, they take note.
"South Carolina is a conservative state and voters are comfortable with the Cold War rhetoric," observed Clemson political scientist David Woodard. "That is why the cozy Russia talk was disturbing. If Trump had been aggressive, no one would have cared."
What should worry South Carolina GOP politicians, even with Trump's backtracking after a fusillade of criticism about what happened in Finland, is whether past and future support of Trump will affect how voters react to their state or local campaigns this year.
If GOP voters are gullible enough to forget what Trump said in Helsinki, it may not matter. But if their gut reaction caused even a small percentage of voters to question whether they should cast ballots for a Trump-backed politician, there could be trouble at the polls in November — even in South Carolina.
Bottom line: Trump has put South Carolina Republicans in a sticky situation with what sports fans would call an unforced error.
Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said the state's GOP leaders can't be silent without consequences.
"Doing nothing says they are either OK with trashing U.S. allies and refusing to take Russia's efforts to foment division and attack and undermine our electoral integrity and security, or they are burying their heads in the sand and hoping it goes away," she said. "They need to speak out in clear terms against this kind of behavior, and they can do that even when they support some of the president's policy positions on these things."
Gibbs Knotts, chair of the political science department at the College of Charleston, added, "Republicans don't need to weigh in on every event, but they should express an opinion if they think the country's values are at stake or if disagreeing with the president is in the best interest of the state or nation."
Most at risk over the president's embrace of a country most believe remains a foe is GOP Gov. Henry McMaster, who wrapped his primary campaign around Trump, dubbing him to be one of the country's greatest presidents. Imagine if Putin feels emboldened to invade the country of Georgia or some other global hot spot and if the S.C. National Guard is called up to respond. That could turn out badly for McMaster. Or what if an ongoing federal investigation into the cyberattack gets worse and roosts closer to the president? Even worse for McMaster. Or if Trump's trade war and its tariffs start harming South Carolina jobs? It would be more bad news for McMaster, who faced four candidates in a primary and was forced into a runoff by a GOP newcomer.
"Most all of the state's GOP candidates have hitched their wagons to Trump," Knotts said. "This is a risky general election strategy for a few reasons. We don't know the final word from [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller. Also, the economy could get worse and that would impact Trump's approval ratings."
South Carolina needs bold leaders and leadership. Now is a time for Republican leaders to sound off loudly about the president's unacceptable behavior and demand action to hold Russia accountable for what it did — and what Russians are probably still trying to do — to impact our election process. If our leaders do nothing, you should let them know how you feel about that at the polls.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. Have a comment? Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org