Politics & Government

Will SC hold a Republican presidential primary? Here’s what voters need to know

South Carolina voters may be one step closer Friday to finding out whether they will be able to vote in a Republican presidential preference primary in 2020.

The lawsuit challenging the decision made by S.C. Republican Party leadership to cancel the party’s presidential preference primary will see its day in court. Columbia Judge Jocelyn Newman will hear arguments from lawyers for the S.C. Republican Party and lawyers for plaintiffs in the lawsuit: former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, Mount Pleasant businessman Frank Heindel and United to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit focused on executive branch accountability.

What arguments will each side make? What are their end goals? Is this case unique?

Here’s what voters should know before Friday’s hearing.

How we got here

Whispers about the S.C. GOP’s intent to cancel the Republican presidential preference primary date back to December, when the party’s chairman Drew McKissick told the conservative publication The Washington Examiner that the party would “end up doing what’s in the president’s best interest.”

Members of the S.C. GOP’s executive committee voted Sept. 7 against having a presidential preference primary. That committee is made up of state party leaders: McKissick, a national committeeman, a national committeewoman, the president of the state federation of Republican woman, the first vice chairman and a committeeman from each of South Carolina’s 46 counties, according to the S.C. GOP’s website.

The vote — of 43 to 1 — was predictably unified against holding a primary that could challenge Trump.

After the vote, McKissick maintained canceling a primary when the party has an incumbent in office is business as usual.

“With no legitimate primary challenger and President (Donald) Trump’s record of results, the decision was made to save South Carolina taxpayers over $1.2 million and forgo an unnecessary primary,” McKissick said.

But not everyone is OK with that decision, including the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and Trump’s three announced challengers — Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh and Mark Sanford, a former S.C. governor and congressman — who would like to compete with him for the nomination.

Why a former SC congressman is suing his own party?

Weeks after the vote to cancel the primary, Republicans Inglis and Heindel teamed up with United to Protect Democracy to sue the state Republican Party. The group argued the party broke state law and its own rules.

Specifically, the group argued that the state GOP’s executive committee does not have the power to cancel an election on their own, according to documents filed in a Richland County court. South Carolina law allows parties to change from a primary nomination system to a convention nomination system if the party can get a three-fourths vote of the total membership of a convention and if the majority of primary voters approve of the measure.

U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) lost his seat. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

What do they want a judge to do?

The group asked Judge Newman to issue a permanent injunction, which would force the party to hold a primary and to withdraw any delegate allocation plan it may have submitted to national GOP officials. The measure will be discussed in court Friday.

Whatever decision Newman makes could face an appeal, dragging the legal battle on.

If ultimately reinstated, the S.C. Republican primary would take place on Feb. 29, 2020.

How the S.C. GOP responded to the lawsuit

The GOP’s lawyers asked a judge to toss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs’ claim they were “deprived” of their right to vote in the primary is not valid because voters don’t “directly choose the party’s candidate” during the contest anyway. They added that voters can still “lobby” delegates to vote for their preferred candidate.

The S.C. GOP officials also argued in the lawsuit that there is no law that requires political parties to hold presidential preference primaries.

Has this happened in South Carolina before?

It’s common for South Carolina political parties not to hold primaries on years where an incumbent is seeking reelection. But deciding to hold a contest during those years isn’t unheard of.

In 1992, the S.C. Republican Party held a primary when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran against then-incumbent President George H.W. Bush.

Also, in years when parties have chosen not to hold primaries, no serious challengers — such as former congressmen or governors — opted to take on an incumbent president. Comparing 2020 to those years prior when presidents faced no real opposition is a “false equivalency,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts told The State.

Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and University of South Carolina political science professor, called canceling the primary when a member of the state’s own party is running “bad manners,” but added that both parties have bent the rules when it comes to canceling primaries.

“I guess that one might call that an infraction, but an infraction of political reality,” Fowler said.

Though cancellations may be a norm, Fowler said he believe this is the first time in modern history a party has faced a legal challenge for the decision in South Carolina.

What are other state GOPs doing?

South Carolina is not the only state not holding a Republican presidential preference primary next year. Parties in Kansas, Alaska, Arizona and Nevada have also voted not to hold the contest.

Kansas officials justified forgoing the state’s presidential primary by saying Republican voters historically voted for a sitting conservative president.

“This has been the same standard for the Kansas Republican Party dating back to President Lincoln’s re-election, the first presidential election that Kansas participated in as a state,” Kansas GOP officials wrote in a statement.

Officials in Alaska argued that holding a primary “would serve no useful purpose when we have an incumbent Republican president,” passing a rule to cancel the state’s primary in late September.

When Arizona officials canceled their state’s Republican primary, chairwoman Kelli Ward said, “Arizona Republicans are fired up to re-elect President Trump.”

Most other states have indicated they will be holding a primary. No others have hinted at a decision to cancel their contests.

Thus far, South Carolina’s GOP is the only one facing a lawsuit over its decision to cancel the Republican primary.

What to expect from Friday’s hearing

Friday at 10 a.m., both sides will meet in Judge Newman’s Columbia courtroom to make their respective arguments on whether she should award the plaintiffs in the case a permanent injunction, which would force the GOP to hold a primary.

Whatever decision Newman reaches is likely to be appealed, meaning the case would then be handed up to a higher court, who would either uphold the decision or chose to overturn it.

Will there be fallout if the S.C. GOP doesn’t have a primary?

Trump’s challengers have already decried the decision to cancel the primary, but none have taken legal action against the S.C. Republican party themselves — though Sanford has not ruled it out.

Last month after the S.C. GOP vote, Sanford called on voters to make their voices heard and demand a Republican primary.

But as weeks passed, Trump’s challengers deprioritized the Palmetto State — which has long enjoyed a particular prominence as the home of the “First in the South” primary — in their campaign strategies. Both Sanford’s and Weld’s campaign said the presidential hopefuls may campaign in South Carolina, but events in other states would take precedence.

Susan Walsh/The State/Peter Hoffman/Jim Cole AP/The State/NYT/AP

Are there benefits to canceling the primary?

Not holding a primary would save the state of South Carolina money, though.

S.C. Elections Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire has estimated that holding a Republican primary on top of the already scheduled Democratic one would cost taxpayers an additional $1.2 million.

Could Trump’s challengers still appear on SC ballots?

Trump’s challengers still could appear on South Carolina ballots in Nov. 2020. Pathways to the ballot include nomination by another certified political party recognized by the state or a petition candidacy which would be a heavier lift, requiring 10,000 signatures of registered S.C. voters.

If they did, could they beat Trump?

The chances of any of the Republicans currently running beating Trump are very slim. Weld, Walsh and Sanford are each consistently polling below 5% in match-ups against the president. Trump, on the other hand, enjoys wide support from Republicans, with an Oct. 16 poll giving him 83% support.

In August, Change Research asked South Carolinians whether they supported Trump or their former governor Sanford’s bid for the presidency. Only 2% of respondents voiced support for Sanford, while 95% opted for Trump.

Emily Bohatch helps cover South Carolina’s government for The State. She also updates The State’s databases. Her accomplishments include winning a Green Eyeshade award in Disaster Reporting in 2018 for her teamwork reporting on Hurricane Irma. She has a degree in Journalism with a minor in Spanish from Ohio University’s E. W. Scripps School of Journalism.