Republicans hold all but one major statewide or federal office in South Carolina, but state GOP chairman Matt Moore said he still worries.
Moore wants to win younger voters to keep Republicans dominant for years to come in South Carolina. He also is working on building party unity after years of infighting. And he has what is looking to be a very crowded 2016 presidential primary to host.
“The election is shaping up to be a generational contrast,” Moore said ahead of the S.C. Republican Convention on Saturday in Columbia.
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A Harvard University poll released this week found Democrats’ edge with younger voters, ages 18-29, could shrink in 2016 over the previous two presidential elections, when the youthful Barack Obama was on the ballot.
“That’s my biggest fear, that we’re going to get too comfortable,” said Billy Simons, chairman of the S.C. Young Republicans. “The Democrats had the state locked down 30 years ago.”
Moore, the nation’s second-youngest state GOP chairman at 33, said he has worked to build a younger base for the party. The state party has added 15 new state committee members and county chairs under age 40, and added 13 college and high school party chapters.
GOP leaders also can point to their party’s potential 2016 presidential nominees as they talk of a generational contest in 2016.
A pair of 40-somethings — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — rank among GOP front-runners. Obama was 47 when he was elected in 2008. But Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee in 2016, will be 69 on Election Day 2016.
“I talk a lot about being a voice for the iPhone generation,” Moore said.
Simons says he has not picked a candidate to support in 2016. But, he added, Rubio’s message about opportunities and solutions resonates with younger voters. “We need to elect someone to coalesce around.”
Agreeing to disagree
In part, that is because the Republican Party has been at war with itself since Obama’s election in 2008.
In South Carolina, a peak came at the 2013 state convention, where Tea Party and libertarian factions opposed the party’s leadership, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, up for re-election the following year. Shouts of protest came from the back of the convention floor, where opponents of the establishment were seated during party elections and debates.
Chad Connelly won re-election as party chairman at that convention, but he left a month later to become director of faith engagement with the Republican National Committee.
Former state party executive director Moore, then working for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, succeeded Connelly as named chairman and executive director, and Graham subsequently won re-election, beating six primary challengers.
In contrast to 2013, Tea Party and libertarian opposition to party leaders could be muted Saturday.
“There won’t be much fireworks,” said Talbert Black, a libertarian leader. “They have this very well orchestrated.”
Instead of the state party, libertarian and Tea Party supporters are focusing more on local elections to try to gain traction, Black said.
They could have influence. The percentage of S.C. Republicans identifying themselves as Tea Party members has nearly doubled in the past two years to 14 percent, according to polling by Winthrop University. But that is well short of the Tea Party peak in 2010.
Still, Moore will have opposition as he seeks a new term as party chairman this weekend.
Mark Powell of Anderson says he wants to close the Republican primary, allowing only GOP voters to cast ballots, instead of allowing anyone to vote. He also wants to separate the jobs of chairman and executive director, hiring an executive director to oversee daily operations.
“The chairman” — usually an unpaid job — “does not need to worry if people are late to work,” Powell said.
Powell questions why Connelly left so soon after his 2013 re-election and how the job ended up with Moore. “I don’t like how it all it happened.”
Chairman Moore said he does not expect consensus on all issues. But, he added, “for the sake of the state and country, we’ve got to find 80 percent of the issues where we agree and work together on those.”
Notably that includes reducing the size of government, he said.
The party is not abandoning its stances on social issues, including abortion, Moore added, but the debate needs to change. “We need to tone down the rhetoric.”
“You can’t be angry all the time,” said Young Republicans chairman Simons, who says the party’s message needs to be more aspirational and less centered on social issues to attract younger voters. “(Some Republicans) want to bash Obama and talk about how everything he does is awful.”
Different outcome in 2016?
The S.C. Republicans will get a chance to evaluate a handful of likely 2016 White House candidates at the party’s annual Silver Elephant dinner Friday and their convention Saturday.
Four presidential hopefuls – Graham, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — will speak before 1,000 Republicans at the dinner Friday.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, among the frontrunners in early polls, will join the quartet at Saturday’s convention, with each giving a speech before 1,500 state GOP leaders.
Moore expects more than 10 candidates to be on the Republican presidential primary ballot Feb. 20, the expected date for that election.
South Carolina’s 32-year streak of picking the GOP’s eventual presidential nominee ended in 2012, when voters chose former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
With so many choices for 2016, some pundits say S.C. Republicans again could favor a candidate who might not win the party’s nomination. A Winthrop Poll last month found a majority of S.C. Republican voters planned to cast ballots for a candidate who shares their views rather than the candidate who could win the general election.
2016 S.C. polls
Average results from five GOP presidential polls taken in S.C. since Feb. 3, according to Real Clear Politics.
S.C. GOP event schedule
Friday: Silver Elephant dinner, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Keynote speaker: Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. Also speaking: four 2016 presidential hopefuls — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania
Saturday: Convention, Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Election of party officials, including chairman; speeches by Gov. Nikki Haley, members of the S.C. congressional delegation and five 2016 presidential hopefuls — Cruz, Graham, Perry, Santorum and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Dates are tentative
Feb. 13: GOP presidential debate in Charleston, Columbia, Greenville or Myrtle Beach. Airing on CBS
Feb. 20: GOP presidential primary in South Carolina