Former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford has never been to his former congressional colleague Jeff Duncan’s “Faith and Freedom Barbecue,” an annual gathering of South Carolina’s most faithful conservatives in arguably the state’s reddest region.
But this is the year Sanford has decided he’ll drive the nearly four hours from his Charleston home to the Upstate city of Anderson to attend the festivities.
Months after losing his congressional seat in the 2018 election, Sanford is nearing a decision about whether he will launch a primary challenge to President Donald Trump. Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, is set to deliver the keynote speech Monday night.
“Better late than never, right?” Sanford quipped in an interview with The State.
Sanford’s expected — and potentially awkward — appearance will punctuate the ninth installment of Duncan’s yearly fundraising event. The annual barbecue is both a celebration of S.C. veterans and first responders and a platform for national Republican players to test out their stump speeches in an early presidential primary state.
Organizers say ticket sales were soaring even before Pence’s appearance was announced.
“There is just this energy right now,” said Duncan’s chief of staff, Allen Klump. “I don’t know if it’s people upset with these Democrat presidential candidates running around South Carolina right now and they’re ready for their rebuttal, or if they feel like the Trump administration is under attack and they want to fight back.”
Ultimately, Klump said, S.C. Republicans are simply eager to celebrate the GOP’s control of the White House and energize around efforts stay in power.
Confirmation of the vice president’s attendance, however, officially put this year’s event on track to be the biggest ever. Organizers fear they will have to turn guests away at the door for the first time.
This year could also be the biggest spectacle.
Pence’s visit to a state where Trump is in no current danger of losing in 2020 — and at an event hosted by a Republican in a safe congressional district — is stoking speculation about his long game: Could he be attending Duncan’s barbecue to ingratiate himself with his base for a potential presidential run in 2024?
“It’s just not real difficult to see he’s planting a seed or two in case he needs to go harvest it later,” said Walter Whetsell, a Lexington-based GOP strategist who had Pence as a client for the years the vice president served in the U.S. House.
2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls also plan to capitalize off of Pence’s visit.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s S.C. campaign plans to hold a counter event at the Welfare Baptist Church in Belton to “stand up against the hateful and divisive rhetoric coming out of the White House.”
At the same time, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign will phone bank on behalf of the Anderson County Democratic Party.
The event also gives the S.C. Democratic Party an opportunity to take a swing at the state’s GOP leaders.
“Jeff Duncan’s probably the most unchristian, unpatriotic member of the United States Congress to the extent that he consistently votes against veteran benefits and he refused to actually stand up for one of the country’s military heroes, John McCain, when Donald Trump attacked him,” said Trav Robertson, the chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party.
Inside the Anderson Sports and Entertainment Center, formally the Anderson Civic Center, attendees are due to give a hero’s welcome to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is now more popular than ever in the state thanks to his strong alliance with Trump.
Also on hand to excite the base will be U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a nationally-recognized conservative firebrand whose job as the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee is to thwart Democratic attempts to undermine the Trump administration.
The crowd of Trump loyalists could confront Sanford with hostility. Sanford said he isn’t worried.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to be asked to the podium,” Sanford told The State, “but, you know, Pence’s style is not Trump’s style. I can’t imagine him calling me out as Trump has done in the past. ... I think people will tell me what they think, pro and con, but that’s the whole point of going, to get that additional perspective.”
Joe Jackson, the South Carolina communications director for the Republican National Committee, suggested Sanford shouldn’t expect any attention on Monday: “I’m not sure that anyone cares.”
‘A real happy time’
Any drama surrounding this year’s Faith and Freedom Barbecue could actually be a testament to just how influential the event has become in local and national conservative political circles.
Duncan has held the barbecue event each year since his election to the 3rd Congressional District in 2010.
Today, the food is still catered by Creekside Barbecue, which hosted the 450 attendees of Duncan’s very first gathering. There is still homemade ice cream courtesy of the son of state Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens.
Tickets are given out for free to South Carolina veterans and first responders. Duncan, a former auctioneer, auctions off items for charity in a crowd-pleasing performance.
The Faith and Freedom Barbecue has a family reunion-like energy, said Anderson County GOP chairwoman Cheryl Cuthrell — a departure from the formal state party fundraising gala held earlier in the month.
“It’s such a relaxed atmosphere compared with the Silver Elephant dinner,” she said “This is more home folk. Everybody’s talking, having a relaxed time. It’s a real happy time.”
It’s more of a “jeans and a T-shirt (type of event),” said former Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson. “Nothing formal.”
But the barbecue has also grown into what is now billed as “South Carolina’s largest gathering of conservatives.”
Over the years, the event has drawn appearances by Republican presidential contenders Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Ben Carson — along with national conservative lightning rods such as Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
It’s also a must-attend event for S.C. Republican. Every 2018 gubernatorial candidate made the rounds in 2017, including Bryant. Former Gov. Nikki Haley spoke one year. Current Gov. Henry McMaster is driving up from Columbia to attend the barbecue on Monday night.
Pence’s participation makes perfect sense, said Whetsell.
“You could not draw a congressional district where Mike Pence fits better district-wide than the 3rd District,” he explained. “And there is not a member of Congress who is much more aligned with Mike Pence’s way of seeing the world than Jeff Duncan.”
In a much larger sense, Pence’s visit shows how important the state is in Republican politics, said Spartanburg County GOP chairman Curtis Smith: “It shows ... the national support that politicians have for the people of South Carolina.”
The event is also, of course, a point of pride for Duncan, who for one night a year gets to play the role of the ultimate S.C. Republican gate-keeper and power-broker.
Duncan’s constituents are proud, too.
“Every year, the speakers get better and better. The music gets better and better,” said Cuthrell. “It just really shows that Jeff is respected in D.C. and how conservative and respected he is.”