The S.C. Republican Party is changing, growing more inclusive, says Greenville attorney Jason Elliott.
Elliott says he knows first hand.
Next January, Elliott will become South Carolina’s first openly gay lawmaker, representing a portion of Greenville in the S.C. House that includes conservative Bob Jones University.
“You hear that we’re a big tent,” Elliott, a former aide to then-U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, said of the GOP. “Well, we demonstrated that.”
In the June 14 GOP primary, Elliott unseated sitting state Rep. Wendy Nanney, best known as the author of the state’s new law restricting abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy. Elliott beat the Bob Jones graduate in a 16-percentage-point landslide.
Elliott says voters in Greenville’s House District 22 know he is gay but his sexual orientation did not play a role in the race.
Other S.C. GOP leaders say Elliott’s election demonstrates the party is growing more inclusive and Republicans voters care more about other issues, including the economy.
“Unquestionably and undeniably, I am a Republican and proud to be one,” Elliott said. “I’m also proud of the fact that I’m a white male, 6 foot, 2 inches with too much gray hair for 45 — and also happen to be gay.”
‘The state is changing’
Elliott does not have an opponent in the November general election.
He defeated Nanney, a four-term state representative, by criticizing the incumbent’s attendance record at the State House, saying she had missed 30 percent of House votes. (Nanney did not return phone calls from The State.)
“With my knowledge and understanding that people knew of my orientation, the election results tell me that — rightfully — we focused on issues that are relevant to the position for which I was running,” Elliott said.
Elliott’s political beliefs are conservative.
He is pro-life, and supports the 2nd Amendment, restructuring state government and school choice.
During his campaign, Elliott also pushed his message that S.C. residents deserve better from state government.
To unseat an incumbent, a challenger has to make the incumbent unacceptable in some form, said Greenville Republican political consultant Chip Felkel, a friend of Elliott’s.
Voters in District 22 saw Elliott as an acceptable alternative, Felkel said, adding, "This was about leadership, experience (and) potential ability to serve."
The majority of District 22 voters "are focused on getting good representation in Columbia,” Felkel said. “Some of the other stuff, they’re less concerned about."
Republican voters overwhelmingly chose Elliott based on his ideas and vision for serving in office — nothing else, said S.C. Republican Party chairman Matt Moore. “The Republican Party is a big-tent party with a diverse coalition of supporters and elected officials.”
S.C. House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister agrees.
“The more perspectives we have on different issues, the better and more creative solutions we can find,” the Greenville Republican said.
“The state is changing,” Bannister said, adding voters want elected officials who are going to work hard. “I don’t think they’re willing to limit the candidates to one particular look.”
Elliott’s GOP roots
A self-described “big geek,” Elliott has been interested in government and politics since middle school. He was student body president at both Wren High School and Clemson University.
After law school, Elliott worked as a prosecutor and, then, as district director for DeMint, R-Greenville, before starting his own law practice.
This year, Elliott initially supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the Republican presidential race. Now, he said he plans to support the GOP nominee, Donald Trump.
Trump speaks to the frustration of the American people, Elliott said. “I understand that frustration.”
Americans feel like the government has not kept its promises, he said, citing the economy’s slow recovery from the Great Recession.
“For the middle class — the people that work paycheck to paycheck — they haven’t seen a recovery.”
GOP voters more focused on economic issues
State Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville, attributes Elliott’s landslide primary win, in part, to younger voters.
Voters under 40 have had their lives framed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2008 economic crisis, said Henderson.
Those voters are most interested in where candidates stand on key issues — jobs, business and lowering taxes, she said. "What a person does when they leave the State House is not necessarily important to people."
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon notes the GOP long has had gay members, citing the Log Cabin Republicans as an example.
"The mainstream Republican Party and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party are going to have a lot less of an issue with this than the evangelical wing," Huffmon said.
Many S.C. Republicans remain uneasy about LGBT issues. Two-thirds oppose gay-marriage, according to a 2015 Winthrop Poll, and the state’s Republican leaders regularly make headlines for taking anti-gay positions.
For instance, Gov. Nikki Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson, both Lexington Republicans, filed suit to block gay marriages in South Carolina.
Elliott does not see that stance as being discriminatory. Instead, he says Haley and Wilson were arguing the gay-marriage issue should be left to states to decide.
The Supreme Court resolved the issue in 2015, declaring gay marriage legal.
"I commend our state for our reaction to the decision," Elliott said of South Carolina’s acceptance of the court ruling.
‘Someone that they can work with’
Among Elliott’s supporters was Greenville City Councilwoman Amy Ryberg Doyle, a longtime Republican who represents the district where Elliott lives.
Elliott is a hard worker, good neighbor and good friend, she said.
His sexual orientation was "a non-issue" during the campaign, she said.
"The Republican Party should stay out of bedrooms and, frankly, now bathrooms," Doyle said, referring to proposals that Republican legislators introduced this year to ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice.
Doyle said millennials are more moderate on social issues. If the GOP is going to win more support from those younger voters and women, it has to be more inclusive, she added.
Elliott sees his sexual orientation as a political non-event.
"If someone is not going to not vote for me or support me because of my orientation, there’s nothing I can do about that," he said, adding he plans to represent both those who supported him and those who did not. "I believe that the folks who did not support me will find that they have someone that they can work with."
Elliott added he does not think his election signals that all Republicans are in the same place on any issue, including gay rights.
"What I do have hope for is that this signals that the people of this particular district are … gauging individuals based upon their ability to do the job, their commitment to the job and their ideas."
The District 22 state representative-elect
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Clemson University; law degree, University of South Carolina
Family: One son