DORCHESTER, S.C.—For South Carolina Republicans, Charleston is the state's establishment stronghold, where old money and stately mansions represent the party’s fiscally conservative wing. The Lowcountry propelled John McCain to victory in 2008, and backed Mitt Romney even as the state went with Newt Gingrich in 2012. In most presidential primaries, the establishment’s insider clout and connections traditionally trump the cultural conservatism in the rest of the state.
But in 2016, South Carolina's political center of gravity is shifting westward to the state’s evangelical outposts—a dynamic that Sen. Ted Cruz is poised to capitalize on. He’s securing endorsements from religious leaders across the state with a message focused on values. In November, Cruz headlined a religious-liberty rally at Bob Jones University, where he proclaimed Christians were under assault. The polls may show Donald Trump ahead in the state, but the momentum is clearly with Cruz.
Last Wednesday, Cruz held a packed rally at a reception hall in rural Dorchester County, where hundreds of enthusiastic supporters committed to Cruz came to cheer him on in a town of just 2,000 people. The event felt more like a political revival than a traditional town hall. “I’ve never seen a political event like this here,” murmured one attendee.
Cruz sprinkled religious references throughout his speech. To roaring applause, he proclaimed that if he’s elected president, “the persecution of religious liberty ends today!” He name-checked his recent endorsement from Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. He quoted from the Bible and closed the event with a prayer. Most pro-Cruz attendees interviewed said the senator’s attacks against Trump over his “New York values”—a ploy to raise questions about Trump’s conservatism—resonated with them.
“Cruz has clearly gotten momentum and he’s built a very, very strong ground game here,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, who offered Cruz an enthusiastic introduction at the event, but declined to endorse him. “We don’t have the compactness of New Hampshire, we don’t have caucuses like Iowa, so ground game here is a big deal.” Cruz’s ground game, according to other GOP insiders, is the best in the state because of his support among evangelicals.
Cruz’s energy with evangelical voters contrasted greatly with the muted receptions given the state’s establishment. In a symbolic sign of the decline, home-state Sen. Lindsey Graham announced his endorsement of Jeb Bush in a low-key event in Charleston the day after the debate. Normally, this would be a consequential moment. But it barely registered: Bush has been fading in the polls despite spending aggressively, and Graham had dropped out of the race after polling poorly even in his home state.
Meanwhile, Marco Rubio’s path to victory in the state relies on cutting into Cruz’s advantage with evangelicals while also consolidating support from the establishment. Graham’s endorsement of Bush was a setback, but if his faith-based pitch in Iowa is successful, he’ll have an opportunity to make inroads with Cruz’s base—particularly with younger, less-partisan evangelicals.
Evangelicals have long played a pivotal role in South Carolina politics—former McCain campaign manager John Weaver credited “Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell” for George W. Bush’s 2000 victory—and their clout has grown since. In 2008, Mike Huckabee comfortably won born-again Christians with 43 percent of the Republican vote, according to exit polls, but still lost the state to McCain. Four years later, evangelicals made up an even larger share of the electorate (67 percent of all primary voters), and Gingrich won 44 percent of their support despite his much-publicized personal foibles. That was more than enough to give him a comfortable victory over Mitt Romney in South Carolina.
The key question is whether Trump can hold onto his own support from evangelical voters, even as he’s been resisted by religious leaders. Gingrich overcame his own past baggage to handily win over evangelicals, even as Rick Santorum aggressively courted them from the right. Trump will be following a similar playbook, hoping that voters are so angry that ideology trumps religiosity.
“If evangelicals were a bloc vote, Newt Gingrich, a Baptist-turned Catholic with a couple of marriages, wouldn’t have won 45 of 46 counties in 2012,” said former South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson. “And Trump’s getting some of them. But no one here has put a glove on Trump yet. A negative ad will hurt if somebody’s willing to do it.”
That somebody is likely to be Cruz, who unleashed his attack on Trump’s “New York values” at the debate in Charleston—and is now engaged in a heated war of words with the billionaire businessman in the race’s home stretch. If it comes down to a showdown in South Carolina between a preacher and a street fighter, bet on the power of prayer.