AIKEN, S.C., Feb. 17, 2016 — With the South Carolina primary race coming down to the final hours, one quiet area in the western part of the state just received a surge of attention. Located close to the Georgia border, the town of Aiken is normally a slice of heaven, a peaceful oasis far removed from the stress of the real world. This week, however, Aiken has became political ground zero. Even though it’s only one hour from the South Carolina capitol of Columbia, Aiken is a confusing contradiction for those unfamiliar with it.
There are people in Aiken who live in cottages. There are still dirt roads. Describe those conditions to people north of the Mason-Dixon line, and expect the incorrect reaction. After all, these are just your standard dirt- poor Southerners, right?
Those in Aiken know the truth. To qualify for status as an Aiken cottage, a dwelling must have a minimum of 22 rooms. The largest Aiken cottage proudly boasts 85 rooms. The dirt roads are where Kentucky Derby horses train, so cars are not permitted on these perfectly kept dirt streets.
The horses have these oversized tracts of land all to themselves. Aiken has plenty of old money, and old money attracts political candidates.
K.T. Ruthven is the chairman of the Aiken Republican Party. He is by marriage the nephew of Claude O’Donovan, the former vice chairman of the Aiken GOP. Claude is “Mr. Aiken.” He and his wife, Sunny, won the 2011 State GOP volunteer of the year award and were finalists in 2015. Since candidates like to give stump speeches, Claude and Sunny took part of an actual tree and made a podium out of it. A precious few individuals have had the privilege of speaking from and signing the Aiken Stump.
With help from passionate political activists such as Jane Page Thompson, Ruthven had to make sure that presidential candidates were well taken care. Event schedules change at the last moment, which requires Ruthven to demonstrate calm in the face of today’s swirling political winds.
All six presidential candidates were invited to the Aiken GOP Presidential Forum on Tuesday night. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson appeared in person. Preparing for candidates is not easy because their entourages often remain a mystery until the last possible moment.
At previous events, Gov. Bush has appeared with everyone from his mother to his brother. This time he was the only Bush in attendance. A surprise appearance by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham added to Bush’s list of endorsements.
Dr. Carson brings more security than perhaps anyone other than President Barack Obama. Given that Carson is near the bottom of the polls, such security would be considered unusual for most candidates. Carson is not most candidates. He is a black conservative Republican who achieved national fame by criticizing President Obama while standing next to him at a prayer breakfast. It is safe to assume that Carson’s need for security is not because of violent threats from Republicans.
On this night, the security was even tighter than the Carson level of normal. He was joined by his wife, Candy Carson. Mrs. Carson is an accomplished violinist and financial services professional who has coauthored several books with her husband. She is one of the nicest ladies a person could ever meet, but threats to her family require a large Secret Service detail.
While the public contended with security, the candidates had it tougher. Speaking from the Aiken Stump does not come without questions. Both Bush and Carson answered substantive questions from a panel of South Carolina elected officials. Congressman Joe Wilson, his son and state Attorney General Alan Wilson, and state GOP chairman Matt Moore led the discussion. Ruthven was the moderator.
While Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was not in attendance, he cleverly took two bites at the Aiken Apple. On Tuesday night, a Florida congressman made the case for him. On Wednesday afternoon, Rubio held a separate event with the Aiken GOP.
Carson also held a separate event in Aiken 90 minutes before he appeared at the forum.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump were rumored to have high-powered surrogates appealing to the crowd. But when the dust settled, neither Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin attended to make the case for their respective candidates.
Instead, making the case for Trump was a black South Carolina pastor named Mark Burns. Burns was repeatedly heckled when he stumped for Trump a couple of days earlier at the Faith and Family Presidential Forum in Greenville. On this night in Aiken, he faced an exhausted crowd ready to go home as the clock ticked near 10 p.m.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is trailing badly in the polls, was not in attendance. He did not send a surrogate, and he has held very few events in South Carolina.
As the Aiken event drew to a close, an exhausted Ruthven looked forward to the day after the upcoming Saturday primary. Like many South Carolinians, Sunday is shaping up to be a great day to either go to church, take a long nap or both.
For those lucky enough to live in the nicest parts of Aiken, sitting on the porch and drinking mint juleps is the order of the day. There is no need to wait for the Kentucky Derby in May when you can see the practice sessions in your backyard throughout the year.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina political horse race is almost over. But the real horse racing on the Aiken dirt roads is about to get red hot.