Just Like in Florida, Trump Easily Winning South Carolina Endorsement Race

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Former President Donald Trump smiles as US Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, addresses the crowd during a campaign event in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 28, 2023 Credit - Logan Cyrus —AFP via Getty Images

The Florida Congressional delegation has been in the middle of a political grudge match this month, as Donald Trump has used his growing support from its Republican members to embarrass his potential 2024 rival, Ron DeSantis. At least 11 of the state’s 20 House members have endorsed the former president over their own governor. DeSantis has secured the backing of only one of Florida’s Capitol Hill lawmakers, who also happens to be his former Secretary of State.

But as the drama has been unfolding over the Sunshine State’s legislators, Trump has also been dominating the endorsement battle in another crucial primary state, just a few hundred miles north, that’s home to two of his other GOP rivals.

In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and three of the state’s six Republican House members—Reps. Russell Fry, William Timmons, and Joe Wilson—have already endorsed Trump.

“It was a very easy endorsement,” Fry tells TIME. “South Carolina has and always will be fertile Trump country.”

Only one member of South Carolina’s federal delegation has endorsed one of his opponents: Rep. Ralph Norman, who is backing Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s first U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The state’s junior U.S. Senator, Republican Tim Scott, has launched his own presidential exploratory committee. Neither DeSantis nor Scott has drawn the support of any of South Carolina’s major elected officials.

Haley’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Scott’s campaign declined to comment.

The lopsided endorsement scorecard seems to reflect the will of the state’s Republican voters. According to the latest polling, conducted April 11 through 14, Trump is beating his closest competitor, DeSantis, by 22 percentage points in South Carolina.

Read more: Top DeSantis Donor Says He’s Ready to Put His Fortune Behind 2024 Bid

It’s a scenario that serves as yet another sign that Republicans are continuing to coalesce around Trump as he climbs the polls and solidifies his status as the odds-on favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination. Yet his commanding lead in South Carolina is particularly significant. The state is the third nominating contest in the Republican primary cycle, making it a critical early stop in the election that can make or break a candidate’s momentum. South Carolina also has a unique history as a kingmaker in GOP nominating contests. Every Republican candidate since 1980 who won the South Carolina primary went on to clinch the party’s nomination, except for one. In 2012, Newt Ginrich won the state but ultimately fell to Mitt Romney.

The Palmetto State has likewise played a key role in Democratic primaries. President Joe Biden essentially assured his 2020 nomination after winning the state by a whopping 29 percentage points. Biden’s pivotal win there was galvanized by the endorsement of the highly influential Democratic Congressman, Jim Clyburn, who helped to corral the state’s large share of Black voters around the former vice president. In February, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution, supported by Biden, to elevate South Carolina as the party’s first primary in 2024.

But in the next election, with Biden running for a second term and unlikely to face any serious intra-party challengers, the state will be more central to the Republican field. It’s already been a destination for GOP presidential hopefuls. DeSantis has not yet launched his campaign but still made two stops in South Carolina last week—in Charleston and Spartanburg—as he prepares to announce his candidacy next month, after the Florida legislature wraps up its session.

There are only two members of South Carolina’s GOP Congressional delegation who have yet to endorse any candidate: Reps. Jeff Duncan and Nancy Mace.

Duncan is in an especially tough spot, with close ties to virtually all of the candidates: He was roommates with Scott in Washington, D.C. when they were freshman House lawmakers; he served in the South Carolina General Assembly with Haley; he was friendly with former Vice President Mike Pence when they were both in the House; and he was a vociferously pro-Trump member of Congress.

He also has a relationship with DeSantis. Both were part of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus and developed a closer bond when they were both on the field together the day of the 2017 Congressional baseball shooting in Virginia, just outside of D.C. DeSantis left the field shortly before the gunman opened fire to catch a ride with Duncan and his staff back to Capitol Hill.

“He’s basically friends with everyone,” a person close to Duncan tells TIME. “He’s had conversations with about all of them. He’s just decided that he’s going to stay out of it, at least for now.”

Mace is another story. She’s been persona non grata in MAGA World after criticizing the former president after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Trump, in response, called her “nasty, disloyal, and bad for the Republican Party.” Still, she was able to stave off a Trump-backed primary challenger in 2022. While she doesn’t seem likely to endorse Trump any time soon, she recently took a swipe at his most formidable potential opponent. On Sunday, she told ABC’s This Week that Republicans would “lose huge if we continue down this path of extremities,” referring to restrictive abortion policies like the six-week ban DeSantis just signed into law.

Mace did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump has surged in polling and garnered major GOP endorsements since Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Gragg indicted him for allegedly falsifying business records in connection with hush money payouts to a porn star. Most recently, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, who chairs the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, endorsed the former president on Donald Trump Jr.’s podcast Triggered.

The move shocked much of political Washington. The National Republican Senate Committee tends to stay neutral in the race at the top of the ticket. Daines also has strong relationships with the Republican donor base, many of whom are not necessarily the friendliest to Trump. It was a substantial boost in the former president’s bid to reclaim the White House.

But Trump’s hold on South Carolina began to emerge well before Bragg’s criminal prosecution of him. “I don’t pretend to know the mood of the country,” Graham is quoted saying in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s 2021 book Peril. “But I do know the mood of the Republican primary voter in South Carolina. Rock solid Trump.”

In January, the Trump campaign held an event at the South Carolina State House with his supporters, including Gov. McMaster, who’s chairing his leadership team in the state, Graham, Timmons, and Fry, a freshman Congressman who ousted former Rep. Tom Rice last year after Rice voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection.

At the time, none of the other candidates had entered the race. But for Trump’s devotees in the South Carolina delegation, any prospective contenders didn’t seem to matter.

“President Trump is consistently polling over 50% in my district. He’s been there for me and is the clear front-runner for 2024,” Timmons tells TIME. “I have great respect for the other candidates willing to throw their hat in the ring and debate the issues of our time. But looking at polling across the country, I think the outcome is predetermined—Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee.”