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With no Republican primary, Trump challengers deprioritize South Carolina

As South Carolina nears primary day, more than a dozen Democrats will criss-cross the state, racking up hundreds of campaign stops.

But Palmetto State voters looking to meet President Donald Trump’s Republican challengers should keep their expectations low, thanks to a decision by the state GOP to cancel their party’s primary.

It’s a decision that one longtime Republican in South Carolina, prominent enough to have a bridge in Charleston named after him, has said in a letter to the newspaper is ill advised, given the field of challengers lining up to face Trump.

Now, those challengers are deprioritizing South Carolina, changing their campaign strategies to favor states that will let them compete in the 2020 election cycle.

Mark Sanford, a former two-term S.C. governor and six-term U.S. congressman, called the decision to cancel the primary “disappointing” and has vowed to fight against it. But unless something changes, Sanford said voters in his home state may not see much of him ahead of the election.

“It will drive me to campaign in other places,” Sanford told The State, but added he would still make appearances in South Carolina “out of respect” to voters who have supported him in the past.

As of late September, Sanford was the only Republican candidate — including Trump — to campaign for the 2020 election in South Carolina.

If there is a unique opportunity to head to the Palmetto State, Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld will still visit, campaign communications director Joe Hunter said. But, if there is an opportunity in another state, they will choose places where Weld can actually appear on a primary ballot, Hunter said.

“We still plan to talk to everyone,” he said.

The State was unable to reach former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh’s campaign.

SC Republicans like Trump

Even if Trump’s challengers were to campaign in South Carolina and the party were to open the primary, they still wouldn’t pose much of a threat if polls prove right.

In a poll conducted in early August by The Post and Courier, Sanford only received 2% of support in South Carolina, while Trump polled at 95%. In a March poll by Emerson College, Weld polled at only 10% in the Palmetto State.

A national poll released by Quinnipiac on Sept. 25 showed Trump polling at 80%, with each of his opponents barely registering at 2% each.

South Carolina Republican Party leaders voted nearly unanimously Sept. 7 not to have a presidential primary. S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said the move was a common strategy deployed when either party has an incumbent president.

“With no legitimate primary challenger and President 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.

The state GOP has held a primary in years they’ve had an incumbent president before, though. In 1992, the party held a race when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran against President George H.W. Bush.

In past years that parties have canceled primaries, no prominent candidates — such as former congressmen or governors — squared off against incumbent presidents, unlike the 2020 election.

Shorty after the decision to cancel the primary, Sanford, Weld and Walsh penned a letter in the Washington Post calling for parties in South Carolina, Arizona, Kansas and Nevada to reinstate their primaries.

The letter referenced “legal challenges to the cancellations” that will likely pop up, and Sanford later did not rule out taking legal action.

On Sept. 16, Sanford took his first steps in trying to push his home state’s party to reinstate the primary, calling for voters to contact the party themselves.

But Thursday, there wasn’t much news from Sanford, who told The State he was “still looking at any and all options.”

Though they have not taken any legal step either, Hunter said Weld’s campaign is expecting a legal challenge against S.C.’s GOP decision.

“If there’s going to be a legal challenge, it’s more likely to come from the voters than the candidates,” Hunter said.

What is a camel, really?

Trump’s opponents aren’t the only ones protesting the state GOP’s decision to cancel the primary.

In a letter to The State, Arthur Ravenel, Jr., who counts decades of service in both the halls of Congress and the S.C. State House, decried the decision.

“Political primaries are vital functions of welcome, inclusion and critical information,” Ravenel wrote. “Nomination by convention or committee in South Carolina has been a disaster for both parties.”

Ravenel pointed to two examples: Albert Watson, a Republican congressman who lost the 1970 gubernatorial race, and Edgar Brown, who was defeated by write-in candidate Strom Thurmond in the 1954 U.S. Senate election — a “victim of thousands of pencils.” Both Watson and Brown were chosen by committee.

“Every Republican member of the General Assembly or Congress is the product of a primary nomination,” Ravenel wrote. “Where are their voices of caution and dismay? Hasn’t anyone ever told them that a camel is a horse designed by a committee?”

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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.
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