Donald Trump wins South Carolina Republican primary

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The News

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Donald Trump decisively won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, defeating his sole opponent Nikki Haley in her home state and barreling onward towards a likely nomination.

Trump came out to declare victory at his election night watch party four minutes after the polls closed, determined to speak before Haley after she came out before him in New Hampshire.

“I just want to say that I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now,” Trump said in a brief speech while flanked on stage by a number of South Carolina officials. “It’s an early evening and it’s a fantastic evening.”

Haley vowed to stay in the race, pointing to early returns showing her getting 40% of the vote, and arguing it showed significant dissatisfaction with the party’s march to a third Trump nomination. She told her supporters she was “running to remind us what it means to be American” and that she would not abandon them to “a Soviet-style election with only one candidate.”

“There are huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries who are saying they want an alternative,” she said. “I said earlier this week that no matter what happens in South Carolina, I would continue to run for President. I’m a woman of my word.”

The Associated Press and multiple networks called the race for Trump immediately after polls closed in the state. The Trump win was expected, with the former president averaging 61.6% support compared to Haley’s 34%, according to the Five Thirty Eight average. Still, it’s a blow to Haley, who has vowed to keep running through Super Tuesday regardless of tonight’s results. She has argued that Trump is unfit for office, claiming he is in mental decline, beset by “chaos” and legal difficulties, and is “siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents” in Vladimir Putin.

“South Carolina will vote on Saturday,” Haley said at a “state of the race” speech earlier in the week. “But on Sunday, I’ll still be running for president. I’m not going anywhere.”

While Haley has made clear she plans to stay in the race despite Saturday’s loss, her path forward to winning the nomination has grown increasingly murky. The former South Carolina governor has addressed the criticism from members of her own party who have urged her to drop out, but has yet to clearly define what, exactly, she sees as her road to winning. In the weeks leading up to South Carolina, she even stopped repeating a comment about having to perform better in her home state than she did in New Hampshire.

Her own campaign, while echoing Haley’s defiance, has admitted the uphill battle she faces: During a press call this week, Haley’s campaign manager Betsy Ankney discussed Haley being better in a general election matchup against President Joe Biden while also conceding that they are aware of the math.

“We know that math is challenging, but this has never just been about who can win a GOP primary. This battle is about who can win in November,” Ankney said.

Trump’s win also comes despite far fewer appearances in the state leading up to the primary. The former president has instead relied on a unique strategy to woo Republican voters to his side: By appearing as much as possible in courtrooms to fight his various indictments. His legal issues successfully have become one with his campaign, and have helped solidify his standing as the clear frontrunner in the Republican primary.

Although the primary continues, Trump’s team has long sought to convince Republicans that, for all intents and purposes, it’s already finished. In a memo sent out on February 20, Trump’s senior advisors Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles declared that Haley’s campaign “ends Saturday, February 24th” and went on to detail how Trump will officially — and easily — become the Republican nominee “before March Madness tips off next month.”

“The true ‘State’ of Nikki Haley’s campaign?” LaCivita and Wiles wrote. “Broken down, out of ideas, out of gas, and completely outperformed by every measure, by Donald Trump.”

There’s more practical concerns behind the push to declare the race over. Trump has called for remaking the RNC in his image by installing handpicked allies, including his daughter-in-law, at the top, a process that’s difficult to carry out while Haley is still ostensibly competing. In his speech on Saturday, he also suggested Kellyanne Conway could be tapped for a role. Henry Barbour, a prominent Mississippi delegate, recently proposed RNC resolutions demanding Trump secure a majority of delegates before being declared the presumptive nominee and prohibiting the party from paying his legal bills, which have run into the tens of millions of dollars.

Notable

  • Semafor’s David Weigel recently followed Haley on her South Carolina push: “Nothing was moving the dial against Trump, but he was not winning 100% of the vote and that was enough rationale to continue.”

  • Both Trump and Biden began shifting into general election mode months ago, I reported last October. That dynamic has ramped up this year, as it’s become increasingly evident that Trump is likely to face Biden once again.