Newt Gingrich supporters hold up signs in support of the candidate after his victory in South Carolina.
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—At 7:01—one minute after the polls closed—the local news affiliate announced the results of the South Carolina Republican primary. Newt Gingrich was the projected winner, with a margin in the double-digits.
For the already large crowd of supporters waiting in the ballroom of the Columbia Hilton, where the Gingrich campaign scheduled its election-night event, this was the moment they had waited for.
Dozens of people began to shout the former Speaker’s name—”Newt, Newt, Newt!”—as they waved signs and the DJ blared a (ridiculous) techno cover of Journey’s hit single, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Among the chanters was Vicki Sciolaro, a volunteer for Gingrich who had traveled 900 miles from Leewood, Kansas to support the former House Speaker in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. “He is brilliant,” she said, clearly jubilant. “He is very eloquent with his words, and a great leader.”
By this point—roughly 30 minutes before the party was scheduled to start— the DJ had moved to AC/DC’s classic single, “Back in Black,” and the ballroom had begun to fill with Gingrich supporters. I managed to grab a nice spot at the base of the platform where Gingrich would give his address and met Raymond Moore, a school custodian from just outside of Columbia, “He doesn’t take anything from anybody,” Moore said about Gingrich. “He’s a bit of a tough guy, and I think America needs that right now.”
This was the sentiment from almost everyone I spoke to. Gingrich voters weren’t just looking for a conservative; they were looking for someone who could stand up to President Barack Obama, stand up to Congress, and get things done. By aggressively confronting the moderators in both presidential debates, Gingrich gave voters what they were looking for.
“I think he is the only candidate who is defending conservatism and not just himself,” said Ashley Bell, the Republican county commissioner from Georgia who was one of a handful of African Americans at the Gingrich event.
Ken Darr, a Spartanburg-based lawyer who was a latecomer to Gingrich’s campaign, offered a similar take. “I think the whole interview with the ex-wife ended up helping him in the debates, and gave his supporters a lot of energy,” he said.
That energy was pulsing through the ballroom, as more people packed into the area, and the DJ moved from 1980s arena-rock, to 1990s dance hits (“Everybody Dance Now”) and a little Prince (“1999”). I used this as an opportunity to move to the lobby of the hotel, in hopes of meeting a few of the elected officials who would join Gingrich on the stage when he gave his speech. I saw South Carolina Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell as he was hurried into a private room, and I had the opportunity to speak with Arizona Representative Trent Franks, who endorsed Gingrich last week.
“Newt Gingrich has an almost magical ability to discern the fallacies in the left-wing message, rebut them, and offer the conservative message,” said Franks, explaining his support for the former House Speaker.
I asked if he thought that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum would face pressure from conservative leaders to bow out of the race, and he declined to answer. But he was confident that conservatives would rally around Gingrich if he were the nominee. “If there is anything on this plant that unifies conservatives, it is the nightmare of a second term for Barack Obama,” he said.
By the time Gingrich arrived to give his speech, it was past 9 pm, and the results were mostly in—he had won South Carolina with 41 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 27 percent. This was a massive victory for the former House Speaker, and if you dig into the results, you would see the extent to which he beat Romney on every measure, from conservative values to (yes, believe it or not) electability.
With the exception of a little praise for his competitors—and a digression about America’s greatness—Gingrich didn’t stay from his standard stump speech. He railed against “anti-religious bigots” and warned that President Obama was trying to move the country down the road of “radical European socialism.”
“I want to go to every neighborhood and every ethnicity and say that if you want a president of food stamps and dependency, you have Barack Obama,” said Gingrich, doubling-down on the rhetoric that sparked his rise in South Carolina last week.
Usually, by this point in the Republican nomination contest, there is a candidate with two wins under his or her belt. This is the first time in Republican history that three different candidates have won three different primaries, and with that in mind, it’s hard to make predictions about what will happen next.
With his fundraising prowess, establishment support, and national campaign organization, Mitt Romney is still a favorite for the nomination. But with this huge win in South Carolina—and the conservative distaste for Romney—you can begin to imagine a path to the nomination for Gingrich. Indeed, if Rick Santorum drops out before Florida, that path becomes even clearer.
In the meantime, we should remember this moment. On the basis of his attacks on journalists, minorities, and the president, a thrice-married, disgraced former lawmaker has won a primary in the heart of Republican country. Either this is a fluke, or the moment when the GOP embraced its worst impulses.