COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mike Lee wants you to know that Ted Cruz prays a lot.
The Utah Republican senator told a packed room at a barbecue joint in Easley, S.C., that in Washington, when “all the powers in the world” seem to have turned against people who believe in liberty, freedom, and Jesus Christ, Cruz is always there.
“In those moments, Ted is among the first to suggest we pray together,” he said.
In the final days before Palmetto Staters decide who will win their long-coveted support, the timbre of the race here has taken a distinctly Bible-Belt tone. Instead of speaking to pragmatic New England sentiment and detailing how he plans to win in November, the Texan is explicitly appealing to South Carolinians’ Protestant Evangelical sensibilities.
And Donald Trump, in his own very special way, is making a similar pitch.
But between their supporters on the ground, there isn’t a whole lot of love-thy-neighbor going on.
When asked at the barbecue place about tension between their supporters, Easley resident and staunch Cruz backer Scott Watkins chuckled.
“You mean other than the fistfights?” he said, grinning.
Emotions are particularly frayed in a small-ish region of the densely Evangelical state called the Upcountry, which has become ground zero of the Trump/Cruz Battle Royale. It’s where the pair—and their very passionate supporters—are waging a holy war of Old Testament proportions.
And as is the case with any war, geography matters. The northwest corner of the state is overshadowed by the Appalachian Mountains, and what it lacks in glitz (think Charleston) or policy-making clout (that would be Columbia, smack-dab in the center), it makes up for in religious faith and conservative single-mindedness. About 40 percent of the state’s Republican primary voters live in this Appalachian region, and their support helped save George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush’s then-flagging presidential bids. The forces that dominate Upcountry politics are also ones that outsiders find totally perplexing—and none less so than Bob Jones University. The school has just 3,000 students—one-third of whom were homeschooled—and it’s so conservative that they aren’t allowed to watch any movies above a G rating without a faculty member present (seriously). It’s also a popular pilgrimage location for Republican presidential contenders, since the school’s community is highly organized and politically active.
So while Lee was focused on praying, and Watkins joked about fistfights, others cast the disagreements in more ominous tones. Joanne Meadows, former president of the Greenville County Republican Party, said conflict over whether to back Cruz or Trump had strained some families.
“There are a lot of houses that have been divided,” she said soberly. “There’s a lot of emotion in this.”
She added that she’s backed Cruz since meeting him at a Republican Party dessert social, and that she’s had some very involved debates about her pick with skeptical neighbors.
In this part of the state, though, it isn’t just a question of neighbors sniping at each other over glasses of iced tea. Cruz’s foes have gone after him in labor-intensive ways. Dan Tripp, South Carolina state director for the pro-Cruz Keep the Promise super PAC, emailed over pictures of numerous large Cruz road signs with smaller “TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” signs stapled all over them. One sign had the words “CHEAT,” “FUCK,” and “CHEATER” scrawled on it in orange spray paint.
Tripp estimated that upwards of one-third of the super PAC’s large pro-Cruz highway signs had been stolen or defaced. Even in an ugly South Carolina presidential primary, he added, that’s a lot.
Trump’s messaging to Evangelicals focuses less on his personal faith and more on Cruz’s alleged lack thereof; the mogul has spent the past few weeks questioning the Texan’s devotion to Christianity.
“How can Ted Cruz be an Evangelical Christian when he lies so much and is so dishonest?” he tweeted last week.
There’s a reason Trump singles out Evangelicals; South Carolina is one of the least Catholic states in the nation —2010 data shows only Mississippi and Tennessee have a smaller percentage of Catholics—and Evangelicals made up 65 percent of 2012’s Republican primary voters.
And it could be a winning strategy.
“There are Evangelicals that are extremely skeptical of any politician who tells them exactly what they want to hear, appearing to be too perfect in their philosophy and faith,” said Robert Cahaly, an Atlanta-based consultant who does work in South Carolina.
“As Carson, Trump, Rubio, and the media continue pointing to examples of tactics and actions which are inconsistent with Cruz's carefully crafted persona, they actually erode the fundamental essence of his support,” he added.
Thus far, it’s working out. Recent CNN and PPP polls show Trump is leading among Palmetto State Evangelicals.
That may be why churches are now battlegrounds. The South Carolina politics blog FitsNews posted pictures of fliers that reportedly blanketed Upstate churches on Wednesday evening (when many host Bible studies and mid-week services). Churchgoers returning to their cars found fliers under their windshields highlighting recent reports that Cruz doesn’t tithe very much.
“Canadian-born Ted Cruz may not even be eligible to be president,” read one flier, next to a picture of the Texan with a Pinocchio nose. “Has a habitually habit of lying and spreading falsehoods on the campaign trail, all while waving a Bible around, taking selfies of himself praying and even signing autographs in the Lord’s House.”
Cruz’s explicitly religious pitch brings its own risks. And if those attacks work and Cruz loses badly in South Carolina, he may have trouble resurrecting his campaign elsewhere.
“If Trump wins South Carolina by double digits in spite of Scalia’s death and the renewed emphasis on the need for a conservative Supreme Court, it calls into serious question Cruz’s ability to rally evangelical voters—the lynchpin of his base,” emailed Robert Jeffress, a pastor from Dallas who has opened several Trump events in prayer but hasn’t endorsed.
That said, Cruz’s backers believe God is on their side. Maryanna Tygart, a retired nurse, traveled from her home in Indiana to South Carolina to volunteer here for Cruz.
“It was so crowded this morning, I tell you what, I was almost in tears,” she said as she waited to get her picture with him at a Republican Women’s Club event in Greenville. “We didn’t even have room big enough or enough phones for people to work, and there were so many people going out door-to-door and canvassing—and it was like, yes! Praise the Lord.”