South Carolina Republican Party officials unanimously endorsed Katrina Shealy over incumbent state Sent. Jake Knotts on Saturday, an angry rebuke of the two-term Lexington County Senator for his role in this summer’s ballot controversy and his alleged ties to the state’s controversial Internet sweepstakes industry.
The party’s executive committee, which includes about 90 people from across the state, approved the endorsement at its Saturday meeting.
State party chairman Chad Connelly, who does not have a vote on the executive committee, said the executive committee has been discussing endorsing Shealy for “awhile” -- discussions Connelly said he has tried to discourage.
But Connelly said this weeks’ news that Knotts has accepted at least $5,000 from individuals and companies associated with the Internet sweepstakes industry -- which state law enforcement officials say is illegal -- “put a lot (of the committee members) over the top.”
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“It was overwhelming today,” Connelly said. “I think people are tired of hearing about the drama surrounding the Senator.”
Glenn McCall, the Republican Party’s national committeeman from South Carolina, said the vote was a sign that Republicans were furious with Knotts for blocking a bill in the state Senate that would have restored the candidates to the ballot.
“Republicans in general are really upset with him for helping spearhead this process to have hundreds of Republicans removed from the ballot,” McCall said. “I just don’t think it was the right thing to do.”
A state Supreme Court decision earlier this year disqualified more than 200 candidates from the June primary. All of them were challengers. Incumbents were not affected.
The lawsuit before the Supreme Court specifically mentioned Shealy and was filed by a man, Robert Barger, who had done campaign work for Knotts. Both Knotts and Barger both have denied conspiring to remove Shealy or any other Republican from the ballot.
Still, when the legislature attempted to pass a bill to fix the problem, Knotts used the peculiar rules of the Senate to kill the bill.
Knotts has defended accepting campaign contributions from Internet Sweepstakes companies -- which critics compare to video poker -- saying the contributions would not buy his vote in the state Senate. Some of Knotts fellow Republicans, including Lexington County Sheriff James Metts, vowed to return similar contributions.
This is not the first time Knotts has angered Republicans. The Lexington County Republican Party has voted to censure him three times. But this is the first time state party officials have gone so far as to endorse his opponent. Shealy ran unsuccessfully against Knotts in the 2008 Republican primary. She is running in November as a petition candidate unaffiliated with any political party.
Knotts was at a wedding Saturday night and unavailable for comment. But in a statement emailed to reporters, Knotts called the vote a sign of “just how far the party has drifted ... from common-sense conservative principles.”
“Over the years I’ve earned the nickname, ‘the Senator for the people.’ It’s because I put the people of Lexington County first, ahead of any outside interests and especially above any political party,” the statement said. “I’ve stood up to the party bosses when it’s been in the best interests of those I serve, and I’ll continue to do so.”
Attempts to reach Shealy were unsuccessful. The election is Nov. 6.