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Republican Party Wants to Skip Presidential Primary in South Carolina

Critics say credible GOP challengers to President Trump should get a chance before voters

Original article published on The Wall Street Journal by Valerie Bauerlein available here

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford speaking during a campaign stop in Columbia, S.C.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford speaking during a campaign stop in Columbia, S.C., in September. PHOTO: SEAN RAYFORD/GETTY IMAGES

A former congressman and a watchdog group asked a South Carolina judge on Friday to force the state Republican Party to hold a presidential primary, despite party leaders’ desire to skip the race and unify behind President Trump.

The state GOP’s executive committee of county representatives voted in September to forgo a primary, citing cost savings of $1.2 million, the lack of a “legitimate primary challenger and President Trump’s record of results.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican, and nonprofit Protect Democracy filed a lawsuit over the canceled primary earlier this month. They say the state party ignored its own procedures by having “a small junta of party bosses” make the decision in a private meeting rather than hold a broader vote at the party convention earlier this year.

Mr. Inglis said in an interview that there are credible Republican challengers to Mr. Trump in 2020, including South Carolina’s former Gov. Mark Sanford. He added that primaries are the way voters set party direction by vetting the candidates, incumbent or not.

“Are you afraid of the weakness of your guy?” Mr. Inglis said. “If your horse is good, put him on the track.”

So far nationally, Mr. Trump’s primary challengers include Mr. Sanford, former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh.

Lawyers in the dispute were heard by a judge Friday in the Fifth Judicial Circuit in Columbia. It could end up before the state Supreme Court later this year if either side appeals. Protect Democracy has asked for a speedy legal process as election laws would require a 90-day notice for a primary. A primary, if called, would likely be held the last week of February 2020, according to the early-state lineup.

Over the years, the state’s Republican Party has vacillated between holding and skipping primaries when there is a Republican incumbent. There were no primaries in 1984 and 2004 at the midpoints of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But the party held a primary in 1992, with George H.W. Bush winning roughly 67% of the vote over populist Patrick Buchanan.

In an interview, Mr. Sanford said it is wrong for the state GOP to abdicate its role as an influential early-primary state, with the first primary in the South. A handful of other states, including Nevada and Arizona, have decided not to hold 2020 primaries, but Mr. Sanford said none has the historic significance of South Carolina. The executive committee vote was announced the same weekend Mr. Sanford said he would challenge Mr. Trump.

“You learn not to take things personally in politics, but it’s obviously aimed quite specifically at one person,” he said.

As for previous incumbents, Mr. Sanford said, “They didn’t have anybody running against them. They didn’t have a former two-term governor of that state who—like him or not—had some degree of political connection.”

The state party referred a request for comment to a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. The RNC spokesman declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Mr. Trump, in a tweet, has said Mr. Sanford lost his last reelection bid after Mr. Trump endorsed his opponent, and called him one of the “Three Stooges” seeking the GOP nomination.

It is unusual for state parties to cancel primaries, though they generally have the right, said Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution expert on primaries and a member of the Democratic National Committee. The legal issue is less about voting rights than the First Amendment, which protects political parties’ right to freely associate and self-govern.

“The courts tend to stay out of this stuff,” she said. A rare exception was the Texas primaries in the 1940s, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that holding a whites-only primary in a one-party state was unconstitutional.

Lawyers for the state party have asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying no one is harmed by skipping the primary. A primary would have bound delegates to a particular candidate but since there is no primary, the GOP lawyers said that voters “can still actively lobby the delegates to the 2020 Republican National Convention to vote for their candidate of choice.”

Former state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who wasn’t involved in the decision, said parties have the legal authority to run primaries as they see fit. He cited an example during his tenure when a federal judge backed the party’s ability to choose who appeared on a debate stage in the 2008 race.

The primary protest is sour grapes from people who have long opposed Mr. Trump, he said.

“Everyone understands whether you were for Donald Trump or Marco Rubio or Rick Perry or whoever, the nominee that wins becomes the leader of our party,” he said. “Might not like him, might not like his manners, what have you. But to the victor go the spoils.”

As governor, Mr. Sanford was often at odds with the state party leadership, including when he vetoed a bill to have South Carolina’s elections board run primaries. His veto was overridden.

The state party voted to censure Mr. Sanford in 2009 after he disappeared from the state capitol and later said he was having an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman.

“It could have been personal,” Mr. Dawson said of the decision. “He embarrassed us in front of the whole world.”

Wayne Steger, an expert on presidential primaries at DePaul University, said he would be surprised if the state GOP loses. But he said the case may come down to whether the decade-old decision to publicly fund South Carolina primaries binds the party to established procedures.

“It’s a golden rule of politics,” he said. “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.”

Write to Valerie Bauerlein at valerie.bauerlein@wsj.com



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