Lexington County Republican Party officials are free to support petition candidate Katrina Shealy over incumbent Sen. Jake Knotts.
The party’s executive committee overwhelmingly voted to suspend a state party rule that required party officials to support only the Republican nominee for a local election. Without that suspension, party officials would have risked losing their positions if they did not support the official Republican candidate.
The rule change, which is in effect for the 2012 election only, is in response to a state Supreme Court decision that removed nearly 200 candidates from the state primary ballots because they did not file their paperwork correctly. The decision did not affect incumbents, meaning many current lawmakers – like Knotts – who had been facing tough primary challenges were unopposed.
The rule change could benefit any of the petition candidates in Lexington County, including several people running for clerk of court and County Council. But the big race is for Knotts’ seat, a rematch from 2008 when Knotts narrowly defeated fellow Republican Shealy in a brutal campaign.
“They can do whatever they want to,” Knotts said after the vote. “The main thing to do tonight is to bring unity back to the Lexington County Republican Party.”
Shealy needs 2,664 signatures by July 17 to be on the ballot for the November election. She says she has about 4,000 signatures and is seeking more “for insurance.” She said she expects to be publicly endorsed by some county Republican officials following Monday night’s vote.
“I’m glad (the party) is doing this,” she said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Shealy said the vote was not specifically aimed at her, but at all petition candidates. She said she is traveling the state to speak on behalf of other petition candidates. She plans to speak next week at a rally in Pickens County, where candidate Rex Rice is trying to unseat Sen. Larry Martin, a Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Knotts-Shealy rivalry has underscored the 2012 South Carolina election season. The original lawsuit that led to the court removing the candidates from the ballot — filed by a man who had done campaign work for Knotts in the past — specifically mentioned Shealy. Later, Shealy tried to have Knotts removed from the ballot because she said he violated an obscure section of the state constitution by challenging an Upstate Republican to a duel.
State Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly said he is encouraging all county Republican parties to waive the rule and allow party officials to support petition candidates who were removed from the ballot. But he said his efforts are not meant to bolster any particular candidate.
“If somebody is a solid conservative Republican they shouldn’t have anything to fear from this,” he said.
Asked if he thought Knotts fit that description, Connelly said: “That’s not for me to decide. That’s up to the voters of Lexington County.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.