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​​Trump on Track to Sweep South Carolina

Despite some tension within churches over the candidates, evangelicals mostly side with the former president’s track record over their former governor Nikki Haley.
​​Trump on Track to Sweep South Carolina
Image: Win McNamee / Getty Images
Trump rally in Conway, South Carolina

In the lead-up to South Carolina’s primary contest on Saturday, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley held a news conference to tell supporters that she’s “not going anywhere” and is committed to offering voters an alternative to former president Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, her presidential rival—who has a 2–1 lead in her home state—spoke at an evangelical conference in Nashville, touting his record on issues important to conservative Christians during his first term and pledging to continue in his second term.

Trump pledged to 1,500 attendees at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) convention that despite threats from the Left, “no one will be touching the cross of Christ under the Trump administration, I swear to you.”

“Christian voters had a good relationship with Nikki and they liked Nikki, but they do love Trump,” said Chad Connelly, who was at the NRB gathering.

The South Carolina native and former two-term chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party is the founder of the conservative Christian organization Faith Wins, which involves 16,000 pastors in evangelical voter registration.

Connelly said the thing he hears most from faith leaders is that Trump “did what he said he was going to do … that’s a rare politician. That’s the number one comment.”

Specific policies come up more than others: Trump’s releasing a list of potential Supreme Court nominees in 2016 and then nominating three conservative judges to the court, as well as his move of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

But more than any particular list of issues motivating this election, multiple sources described a deep sense of personal loyalty that GOP primary voters feel for Trump, something that has intensified along with his legal troubles.

“People felt like these are political hit jobs,” Connelly said. “Those things are helping him in the weirdest way. I wouldn’t have predicted it. But they are absolutely helping him. It has brought out a fervor and an excitement. … I’ve never seen [this] depth of support and enthusiasm.”

In 2016, white evangelicals dispersed their votes in South Carolina’s GOP primary: Trump gained 34 percent of the vote, Sen. Ted Cruz gained 26 percent, and Marco Rubio gained 21 percent. Political watchers don’t expect much of a divide this time around.

“There are evangelicals in South Carolina that are somewhat suspicious of Trump and are probably supporting Nikki Haley, or are going to reluctantly support Trump,” Tony Beam, director of church engagement at North Greenville University and policy director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, told CT. “But I would say the largest group are those who are probably going to be pretty solidly behind Trump for the primary and for president.”

The state has plenty of “evangelicals in name only” who are fervent Trump supporters, Beam said. But others are “in church every Sunday, I serve on committees, I’m serious about my faith–type believers that believe Trump is the answer.”

Danielle Vinson, a politics and international affairs professor at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, has noticed tension within churches, though she believes the excitement for Trump is more uniform in rural churches compared to their urban and suburban counterparts.

In her evangelical church, she’s at times been “very mystified by little old ladies completely rationalizing Trump, but they do,” she said. “But I have noticed a small smattering of very vocal opponents to Trump in those very same congregations. So it’s not a universal love, but I also think there’s more enthusiasm than you might find in other parts of the country.”

More notable divides may fall along socioeconomic lines.

“I do think South Carolina has more of what we would traditionally view evangelical voters to be,” Nicholas Higgins, chair of the political science department at North Greenville University, told CT. “I just think that the information is going to be less useful because it’s getting mixed with other types of groups.”

Higgins has observed that in his conversations with students or professors, there’s a marked preference for Haley over Trump at times. But when he speaks with blue-collar workers at his church or elsewhere, he’s noticed more support for Trump.

It’s not ubiquitous, he said, but it’s more marked than divisions along faith: “I find Christians of higher education tend to support Haley, Christians with lower education tend to support Trump. Seculars of higher education tend to support Haley, seculars of lower education tend to support Trump. I think that’s where you’re finding greater variation.”

There are some rumblings that Haley’s reason for powering through, despite the losses, is the possibility of a shakeup in the race due to her rival’s outstanding issues in state and federal courts. Trump faces 91 felony counts in two state courts and two federal districts, as well as a civil suit in New York.

There are also states that have filed cases using an obscure provision in the 14th Amendment to argue a legal theory that Trump is ineligible for appearing on the 2024 ballot due to his role in the January 6, 2021, US Capitol insurrection. It’s not clear how they will rule, though justices seemed skeptical during oral arguments earlier this month that the state could exclude Trump from the ballot in Colorado.

“It’s going to be nigh impossible for Haley to pull up enough to prevent Trump from getting the majority of delegates,” Higgins said. But he said her strategy may still be to be the next highest delegate holder to show viability, in the event that Trump’s legal issues take him out of the running.

She may be hoping, Higgins said, that “the other side is going to have to forfeit. And so coming in second, getting the silver medal, then finding out the gold medal winner took a pile of performance-enhancing drugs—you get the gold medal.”

Former state representative Garry Smith told CT he hears from Christian friends who are opting out of engaging politically at the moment. “There’s lots of confusion in the church,” he said. But as November draws closer, he believes tension will dissipate between the various wings of the Republican party for “more focus on the objective—which is to elect candidates of the party.”

Chip Felkel, a South Carolina native who grew up in what he described as a “deep water” Southern Baptist church and now attends a Methodist church, said he finds it hard to recognize the evangelical and Republican circles he grew up in.

“I will never completely understand the connection from the evangelical community with Donald Trump,” Felkel told CT. “The evangelical community—he’s their champion.”

“Within the ‘Trump party,’ they liken him to King David. Some even go so far as a Second Coming, and I know that’s extreme, but I have heard and I’ve read where people think he’s anointed by God to lead their effort,” Felkel said.

He’s worked for multiple Republican campaigns in South Carolina and is a longtime conservative GOP consultant. He’s not associated with a campaign this cycle.

But Felkel—as well as other white Christian voters who are skeptical of former president Donald Trump—are set to be the minority in this weekend’s South Carolina GOP primary.

“Look, I mean, Trump will win big here. There’s no question about that,” Felkel said.

After South Carolina, Michigan holds its contest on February 27.

The next landmark in the election is Super Tuesday, which falls on March 5. Fifteen states will vote, and the result will account for 874 of the necessary 2,429 Republican delegates. While it won’t be enough for Trump to sweep the nomination, Super Tuesday is likely Haley’s last shot at proving her viability.

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