NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Republicans who are seeking to lead their party in the 2024 presidential race gathered in South Carolina this weekend with a goal at the forefront of their agenda: taking on ''woke ideology.''
On Saturday in North Charleston, the group Palmetto Family, which lobbies for what it considers to be ''biblical values," hosted Vision '24, described by organizers as ''casting the conservative vision" for the next White House race. Several hundred attendees heard from presidential hopefuls, including Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor who was Donald Trump's U.N. ambassador, and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
As organizers expected, issues such as gas prices and national security got plenty of attention, with former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson saying that, to fight inflation, ''we've got to bring the federal government under control.''
But, as anticipated, much of the focus was on the pushback by some across the U.S. against what they perceive as affronts to conservative ways of life by efforts characterized as ''woke." It's playing out in state-level debates over classroom instruction, gender-affirming care for minors and collegiate diversity programs.
The catch-all label of ''woke'' is taking on a leading a role within the burgeoning GOP presidential contest, with candidate-in-waiting Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, emerging as a fierce opponent of policies designed to ensure equity when it comes to race, gender and public health.
Ramaswamy, who entered the race this month, wrote a book on the topic, particularly as it pertains to business: ''Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America's Social Justice Scam.''
The debate has spilled over into the finance space, too.
On Thursday, 19 Republican governors, including DeSantis and South Dakota's Kristi Noem, another possible 2024 contender, signed a letter opposing the Biden administration's support of a federal labor rule allowing retirement plans to consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors when making investment decisions. Critics say the efforts are the latest example of the world trying to get ''woke,'' allocating money based on political agendas, like a drive against climate change, rather than on earning the best returns for savers.
DeSantis wasn't on stage in South Carolina, but Ramaswamy and Haley were. Haley has adopted ''strong and proud, not weak and woke'' on yard signs, shirts and campaign stickers. At the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month, she said that ''wokeness is a virus more dangerous than any pandemic, hands down.'' On Saturday, Haley called transgender students competing in sports ''the women's issue of our time," adding: ''If we don't stop all this woke ideology that's happening in our schools, we will lose them.''
For Ramaswamy, being ''anti-woke'' is central to his political brand. Leaving his biotech company following pressures for him ''make a statement in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement,'' Ramaswamy called at CPAC for ''an opportunity for the conservative movement to rise to the occasion and fill that void with a vision of American national identity that runs so deep that it dilutes this woke poison to irrelevance." He later launched his own firm intended to pressure companies to quit ESG initiatives.
On Saturday, Ramaswamy called ''woke'' a ''cultural cancer'' in America, saying that, as president, he would advocate for starting over with agencies that ''have become a cancerous rot.''
''We will shut down the FBI and create something new from scratch to take its place,'' he said, to big applause.
It's a similar vein of messaging that South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, yet to announce his own 2024 bid but in attendance Saturday, has been making for years. In a 2021 op-ed, Scott wrote that, due to his status as the Senate's sole Black Republican, he had long endured critique from ''woke folk'' because ''my ideology does not match that which they prescribe based on my complexion.''
''The radical left is trying to get people hooked on victimhood,'' Scott said Saturday in North Charleston, adding that, according to Democrats, ''if you're white you must be an oppressor. If you're Black or brown, you are the victim.''
Others took on the topic, too.
''I think we should protect children ... sometimes even from themselves,'' Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told attendees, referencing transgender student athletes.
"Woke is their favorite word, woke-ism is their favorite activity & they adhere to DEI and ESG like it's a religion,'' Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said of Washington Democrats. ''I think that's why 75% of this country think the country is on the wrong track.''
''Republicans are not perfect,'' said Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana. ''But the other side is crazy. ... The American people do not deserve to be governed by deeply woke ... people who hate George Washington, hate Thomas Jefferson ... who think our kids should be able to change genders at recess.''
Former Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, who told The Associated Press he would determine if he would seek the 2024 GOP presidential nomination by late spring or early summer — said ''woke''-minded Washington politicians ''are crushing the spirt of American educators and entrepreneurs and the American spirit."
Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who left the Democratic Party last year, said her former party is being ''driven by this motivation of cowardly wokeness" and has leaders who ''advocate for the mutilation of children in the name of so called gender affirming care.''
Previewing the event on Friday, South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson called the push by the ''MAGA agenda'' a ''dog whistle'' to some.
''If they're talking about a culture war and woke, then you're not paying attention to the fact that your rights and your freedom to make your health care decisions as a woman are being taken away,'' Robertson said, referencing pushes for more restrictive abortion laws in a number of states. ''They want to talk about woke because they aren't capable of talking about anything of substance.''
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP