SC Republicans may not hold a primary. What does that mean for Trump’s challengers?

Voters cast their ballots at Farrington High School on Nov. 8, 2016, in Honolulu.
Voters cast their ballots at Farrington High School on Nov. 8, 2016, in Honolulu. AP

As Republican challengers to President Donald Trump line up, South Carolina GOP leaders are expected to deny them a chance to run against the president in the Palmetto State.

The South Carolina Republican Party will meet privately Saturday to decide whether to hold a presidential preference primary to allow Palmetto State voters to cast ballots for their choice for GOP nominee: Trump or his challengers.

Former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford has said he is weighing a primary challenge against Trump. The Charleston Republican told The State Friday he still hasn’t made a decision despite making trips to early states of New Hampshire and Iowa and shooting for Labor Day, which passed Monday, to decide.

And polls show Trump easily trouncing other would-be challengers — including former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh.

According to the S.C. GOP’s director, Drew McKissick, party leadership voting against having a primary isn’t out of the question.

“There is strong precedent on the part of both parties to not hold a primary when they control the White House,” McKissick said, according to a statement from the S.C. GOP.

Primaries past

The state Republican Party did hold a primary in 1992, allowing conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and on the ballot alongside President George H. W. Bush.

Still, not holding a presidential primary during a year an incumbent president is running for reelection would not be an unprecedented move in South Carolina, McKissick and other defenders of not allowing a primary challenge against Trump have said, pointing to incumbent GOP presidents in 1984 and 2004, and Democratic ones in 1996 and 2012 who faced no primary challenges in South Carolina.

But comparing past elections where South Carolina has not held presidential primaries to this year would be “a false equivalency,” College of Charleston Political Science Department Chair Gibbs Knotts said.

In 1984, 1996, 2004 and 2012, no prominent candidates — like former congressmen or governors — squared off against incumbent presidents, Knotts said.

“There’s always people running for president that most Americans haven’t heard of, but I can’t think of noteworthy people like Sanford (running) in those races,” Knotts said.

But, Knotts added, it’s typical for parties not to want to put a “popular incumbent president” at risk.

A former U.S. congressman and S.C. governor, Sanford — who is considering a presidential bid — said if the state’s party voted to scrap the primary, it would have no bearing on his decision to run.

“The party’s going to decide whatever it does and I would just repeat the Irish Prayer,” said Sanford, which he quoted as, “God, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”

Sanford declined to give a new timeline for his announcement — which was originally slated to fall around Labor Day — but acknowledged, “I’m near the end of my ponder.”

“My number one goal is trying to get a word out on debt, deficit and government spending,” he said. “I don’t know that a primary or not would materially changing that, so we’ll see.”

The other path to the ballot

While the S.C. GOP decides whether to hold a primary, state elections officials say they are prepared to move forward with it if needed.

“We’re prepared to conduct it if that’s what they decide,” said S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said.

Holding a Republican presidential primary in 2020 would likely cost the state about $1.2 million, Whitmire said. The S.C. GOP has until 90 days before the election, which is tentatively set for Feb. 29, 2020, to make a final decision.

If the party were to decide against holding a primary, candidates could still appear on South Carolina ballots during the general election, Whitmire said. Presidential hopefuls would either need to be nominated by a certified political party that is recognized in the state or they would need to submit a petition with 10,000 signatures of registered S.C. voters.

Petitions are due to the South Carolina Election Commission by noon July 15, 2020, Whitmire said. The election commission will verify signatures before adding candidates to the ballot.

Candidates have successfully petitioned to appear on the presidential primary ballot in South Carolina before, including Ralph Nader and Ross Perot, Whitmire said. The biggest obstacle, though, is successfully petitioning enough states to appear on enough ballots to win the electoral college, he added.

South Carolina does not have an option for write-in candidates for the office of president.

Maayan Schechter and Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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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.
Maayan Schechter (My-yahn Schek-ter) covers the S.C. State House and politics for The State. She grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and graduated from the University of North Carolina-Asheville. She has previously worked at the Aiken Standard and the Greenville News.