South Carolina

SC Republicans could forgo 2020 primary to protect Trump

The S.C. Republican Party could decide next summer to pass on holding the party’s 2020 primary election — a move that is not unprecedented — to help President Donald Trump’s re-election bid.

Canceling the first-in-the-South primary would save S.C. taxpayers millions of dollars. But it could cost the state millions in economic activity in lost advertising, and hotel, motel and restaurant sales. It also would cost the state national exposure.

Thus far, Trump has no challenger for the GOP nomination in 2020. However, a few Republicans — including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich — have flirted with the idea.

State GOP chairman Drew McKissick told The State on Wednesday that no decision has been made about forgoing the S.C. primary. By state law, the party has to tell the S.C. Election Commission whether it will hold a primary at least 90 days before the election.

The state’s GOP primary tentatively is set for Feb. 29, 2020, the second in the country and the South’s first.

“It’s not, whatsoever, under consideration,” McKissick said Wednesday of canceling the primary. “It’s not been thought about, talked about, contemplated.”

He added the state party’s executive committee wouldn’t vote on canceling the primary “until summer 2019.”

McKissick told the conservative Washington Examiner on Tuesday, “Considering the fact that the entire party supports the president, we’ll end up doing what’s in the president’s best interest.”

The former New York business mogul swept most S.C. counties in the February 2016 primary, setting the stage for him to capture the GOP nomination. Trump also took the Palmetto State that following November, beating former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Trump remains popular among S.C. Republicans, according to a recent poll that says his approval rating among S.C. GOP voters is more than 80 percent.

“We have complete autonomy and flexibility in either direction” on whether to hold a primary, McKissick told the Examiner on Tuesday, meaning state parties — not the General Assembly or law — determine whether primaries are held.

Scrapping the presidential primary in February 2020 would not be the first time that a S.C. party with an incumbent president has called off the contest.

A lack of opposition to then-President George W. Bush caused S.C. Republicans to call off their 2004 primary. Republicans did the same thing for President Ronald Reagan in 1984. S.C. Democrats did not hold primaries in 1996 and 2012, when Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, were the incumbent presidents.

“You’re showing the support of your incumbent president” when a state doesn’t hold a primary, said Katon Dawson, a former S.C. GOP chairman.

Another reason to pass on a primary: Statewide elections are expensive, Dawson said.

“Putting on a primary, in modern history, can cost a couple of millions of dollars, up to $3.2 million to have a presidential primary,” Dawson said. “There is no fallout not to have a primary on the presidential level, in my opinion.”

But not every Republican is on board.

Scott Malyerck, the S.C. GOP executive director from 2005-07, told McClatchy that not holding a primary would be a mistake.

Primaries “make nominees stronger candidates” by giving them more experience campaigning and debating the issues, he said.

“If Donald Trump is strong, he will win the primary,” said Malyerck, now a S.C. political consultant. “Would we close down a state primary because Henry McMaster is popular with Republicans?”

State Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson on Wednesday likened the Republicans’ primary possibility to a “pig in a poke.”

“They’re left with an unpopular president who has a dismal job approval rating, and they’re getting nervous,” Robertson said in a statement. “South Carolinians deserve to have their voices heard in fair elections.”

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC

Charles Duncan covers what’s happening right now across North and South Carolina, from breaking news to fun or interesting stories from across the region. He holds degrees from N.C. State University and Duke and lives two blocks from the ocean in Myrtle Beach.
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.