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Republicans in South Carolina reflect on the state of their party ahead of the primary

DON GONYEA, HOST:

South Carolina's Republican primary is less than a week away. Nikki Haley is lagging far behind former President Donald Trump in polls. A loss in the Palmetto State would be the latest in a string of primary defeats for Haley, but this hasn't dampened Republican Mike Burgess' support for her.

MIKE BURGESS: Being a history teacher, you know, you can learn a lot of lessons from history, and one of which is don't ever, ever, ever count out Nikki Haley because in every race she's ever run, she's been in this exact same position, and she has won.

GONYEA: Mike Burgess recently was the vice chairman of his county's GOP. I spoke with him ahead of this week's primary, along with another Republican, Matt Moore, who previously served as the chairman of South Carolina's state GOP and worked on a super PAC for Senator Tim Scott's presidential run.

MATT MOORE: My vote is for America. Nikki Haley is a member of my church, but it's looking like President Trump is going to win, so I'll leave it at that.

GONYEA: All right, so you are both based in Lexington County, a place that was arguably the launchpad for Nikki Haley's political career. She represented Lexington in the state House. One would think it would be a place where Haley's support is perhaps the strongest. What are you seeing on the ground? Matt, you first.

MOORE: Well, this is not your father's or even your grandfather's Republican Party. This is a much different party than when Nikki Haley was governor. It's looking like the president will get about 60% of the vote next weekend. I'm sure Mike will quibble with that. But the Trump political movement - we've not seen the end of it yet.

GONYEA: And, Mike, I'll give you a chance to quibble or to react how you will.

BURGESS: I will definitely quibble a little bit here. What is essential is invisible here to understand the voters that right now are at the polls are not picking up. For example, we have a very healthy teen Republicans club here at River Bluff High School that I have sponsored. And of those seniors, 45 of them will be voting next Saturday. They have supported DeSantis. They have supported Kim Scott. They have supported Nikki Haley by participating in parades and campaigning. And none of them have shown any preference to President Trump. The other piece is people like myself or my family or my neighbors, as well as independents.

GONYEA: Given how well people know Nikki Haley - family connections, whatever - is it difficult for them to vote against her? Or is it one of those things where they say, well, it's just politics; it's just business or whatever?

MOORE: This is Matt Moore. I would say that Nikki Haley is highly respected, first and foremost, but I do think people see a president differently than they see a governor or a member of a cabinet. She has run a very good textbook campaign. But the reality is that Trump has been the de facto incumbent of the party, and there's hardly anything anyone can do about it.

GONYEA: Is it mostly a contest of political personalities, or are specific issues really and truly motivating voters? Matt, you can go first.

MOORE: It's actually more issues. The rural versus suburban versus urban debate in South Carolina is very strong and a strong sense that, particularly in the rural community, that Trump was strong against China, that Trump is fighting for American jobs versus, you know, selling out to this person or that person. So again, Mike has hopeful optimism about people coming out of the woodwork next week. But Nikki Haley was seen as a certain way as governor. And the party's changed since then, and Trump sort of embodies that new Republican Party.

GONYEA: Mike, do you agree? Is it issues, or is it personality?

BURGESS: Well, I think it's a combination of both, but I think ultimately, it's a struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party - Trump supporters, the MAGA faction, versus Nikki Haley, who represents Reagan Republicanism and that America has a role to lead on the international stage.

GONYEA: Mike, that struggle for the GOP you referred to - that actually led you to resign from your local GOP leadership position.

BURGESS: Oh, absolutely. Quite frankly, I did not feel comfortable sitting as an officer in the newly formed Lexington County GOP - you know, we reorganize every two years - with people who had been active participants in January 6, with election deniers, with conspiracy theorists and ultimately people who proclaim their love in America, but ultimately, they hate Americans.

GONYEA: Are you still a Republican?

BURGESS: I am a Reagan Republican. Now, am I an official member of MAGA Republicanism? Absolutely not.

GONYEA: And, Matt, is there room for a Ronald Reagan Republican in the party anymore?

MOORE: There should be. The party needs to be united in the fall. The Democrats tend to do team sport better than the Republicans. And there is a chance here, I think, in the fall, with the vice presidential pick and the Senate hanging in balance, for the party to come together.

GONYEA: It's hard to see President Reagan opposing aid for Ukraine - just your thoughts on that.

MOORE: I tend to have the view that no policy views are static, right? What Americans believed even 20 years ago is different than 20 years before. Essential to Trumpism is the belief by a lot of Americans that, you know, the so-called establishment or the elites have left them behind, right? So they see things through the prism of, hey, why are we investing in Kyiv when we can't invest in Red Bank, S.C., which is a city in Lexington County, right?

So I don't see it necessarily as isolationist. Trump said that he wants NATO members to live up to the commitments in terms of funding, right? Some of them need to double, right? So it's not a retreat from the world per se, but it's certainly a more pointed and strategic approach, it looks like, in potentially Trump's second term.

GONYEA: You've talked, Mike, about the divisions within the party. You teach high school social studies. Do you hear your high school students having these kinds of conversations? Do these same divides play out among young people?

BURGESS: No, we're not seeing that. We're not seeing the hyperpartisanship. We're not seeing the intense polarization. And I think these students realize - and I've had one tell me this - that, Coach Burgess, your generation failed, but my generation won't. That really, truly gives me hope for the future, that you have students like that that understand they have a powerful future role to play in our democracy.

GONYEA: We have been talking to South Carolina Republicans Mike Burgess and Matt Moore. Both of you, thanks much.

BURGESS: Thank you.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.