Former Congressman sues SC Republican Party over canceled primary

After voting to cancel their party’s primary in early September, the South Carolina Republican Party is facing a court challenge to its decision.

The party was sued Tuesday by the non-profit, United to Protect Democracy, on behalf of former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis and Mount Pleasant businessman Frank Heindel, who said the state’s GOP broke S.C. law and its own rules by voting to cancel the 2020 Republican primary, according to documents filed in a Richland County court.

“I’m a life-long Republican, who has served as both an elected member of the House of Representatives as well as a party official,” Inglis said in a statement released by Protect Democracy, “I’m participating in this lawsuit because the cancellation of the primary by a small handful of party insiders denied me — and every other South Carolina Republican — our voice in defining what the Republican Party is and who it supports. I’m fighting for all of us to get our voices back.”

United to Protect Democracy is a non-profit focused on executive branch accountability.

Inglis and Heindel argued that, by canceling the primary, the S.C. Republican Party “deprived” them of the ability to vote for their preferred candidate in “South Carolina’s famous (and particularly influential) ‘First in the South’ primary.”

“It didn’t have to be this way,” the lawsuit reads.

The pair argue that the South Carolina GOP’s executive committee does not have the power to cancel an election on their own. According to state law, to hold a nominating convention, the Republican Party must get a three-fourths vote from the total convention and support from a majority of Republican primary voters.

On Sept. 7, the S.C. GOP executive committee voted 43-1 to cancel the primary. Chairman Drew McKissick said in a statement after the vote it was not unusual for a party to cancel its primary when it has an incumbent in the White House.

But that isn’t always the case. In 1992, South Carolina held a Republican primary when incumbent President George H.W. Bush was running against conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Inglis and Heindel also argued South Carolina law requires political parties to follow their own rules when it comes to primary elections, and the S.C. GOP bylaws state that the party must decide “within two years prior to each presidential election year,” whether to hold a primary.

“Instead, the State Executive Committee has chosen which candidate to support by fiat, and in doing so, excluded Republican voters from the process entirely,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit also pointed to a resolution passed unanimously by the Republican party in 2014 that called for neutrality in the primary process and treating “all campaigns equally.”

But in December, McKissick told the conservative Washington Examiner that, “we’ll end up doing what’s in the president’s best interest.”

The group is seeking a permanent injunction against canceling the primary and ask that the court order the GOP to hold a presidential primary.

Officials from the S.C. Republican Party “don’t comment on pending legal matters,” spokesman Joe Jackson said.

The lawsuit is the first filed in response to the state Republican party’s decision to cancel the GOP primary, effectively shutting out Trump’s opponents — including former S.C. governor and congressman Mark Sanford — from appearing on ballots in South Carolina.

Without a primary, 2020 hopefuls like Sanford, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh would either have to run under another certified political party or submit a petition with the signatures of 10,000 registered state voters. South Carolina does not have an option for write-in candidates for the office of president.

After the vote to cancel the primary, President Donald Trump’s Republican opponents voiced their displeasure with the system, publishing a letter in the Washington Post which called for party officials to reinstate primaries in South Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Nevada.

On Sept. 16, Sanford embarked on a campaign to get the primary reinstated, calling for voters to reach out to the Republican party and decry the decision. During the speech, Sanford did not rule out taking legal action to get the primary reinstated, saying he was “still looking at any and all options.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday afternoon, Sanford reiterated that he’d been considering his options for whether to launch his own legal challenge to the SC GOP, but had “heard rumors to the effect that something was happening, and I wanted to wait and see.”

He had not spoken to Inglis, Heindel or Protect Democracy representatives prior to them filing their suit, or at any point in this process. Sanford also was noncommittal about whether he would offer himself up as a resource during legal proceedings or if he saw a way to be helpful.

“I’m just watching like everybody else,” Sanford told The State.

Without a Republican primary, Republican presidential campaigns will likely campaign less in South Carolina. Campaign officials told The State they had deprioritized campaigning in the Palmetto State.

The move to cancel the primary has received mixed reactions.

Former U.S. Rep. Arthur Ravenel Jr., disagreed with the decision in a letter to The State, calling political primaries “vital functions of welcome, inclusion and critical information.”

On the other hand, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s chief of staff Trey Walker tweeted Tuesday that “SC’s GOP presidential primary is considered a beauty contest and delegates to the GOP national convention are not bound by the result.”

“SC’s delegates are elected at (presidential election) year GOP congressional and state level conventions,” Walker tweeted. “They can vote their conscience.”

Staff writer 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.