COLUMBIA — A small group of S.C. Republicans is trying to change the way the GOP chooses its candidates so that they are selected by the state party’s convention delegates, not primary voters, Republican Party leaders say.
The move, which the leaders oppose, would upend the decades-old primaries that helped launch the GOP to prominence in the once solidly Democratic South.
GOP activists insist they are trying to do no such thing and say party leaders are spreading propaganda.
But one Republican leader says the move is a thinly veiled attempt to oust U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Seneca Republican who some in the GOP, including tea party elements, say is too moderate. Graham faces re-election in 2014.
State law allows political parties to choose their candidates in primary elections. But it also allows parties to select their candidates at their conventions – if three-fourths of convention delegates agree to that method.
A bill, currently on the S.C. House floor, would make nominating candidates at conventions even more difficult. It would require primary voters to pass a referendum allowing a party to nominate its candidates at conventions. Lawmakers are scheduled to debate the bill again on Tuesday.
State GOP leaders favor the amendment but are not waiting for lawmakers to act.
Former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins of Greenville, state party chairman Chad Connelly of Newberry and former state party executive director Tony Denny of Lexington have launched a website – saveourprimary.com – and held conference calls with party activists throughout the state to fight the idea of nominating candidates at a party convention.
They point to Greenville attorney Stephen Brown as the leader of the effort to nominate candidates at the GOP convention. Connelly says Brown’s motive is to unseat Graham.
“It’s about one guy in the Upstate wanting to run against Lindsey Graham,” Connelly said. “He knows he can’t beat him in the primary.”
Brown, who ran against Connelly for state party chairman two years ago, denies that. Instead, Brown says his motive is to ensure that only registered Republicans can vote in a GOP primary. S.C. primary voters now do not register by party, meaning they can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries – but not both.
In 2010, Brown filed a federal lawsuit, on behalf of the Greenville County Republican Party’s executive committee, challenging the state law that requires political primaries be open to all registered voters, regardless of their political affiliation.
But Brown’s lawsuit also challenges the state law that requires three-fourths of the delegates to a party’s convention to vote in favor of nominating candidates at a convention, instead of in a primary. Brown argues a simple majority is all that is required to approve nominating candidates at a convention.
“No one is suggesting we should eliminate primaries,” Brown said. “That’s a red herring. I don’t know of anyone saying that. Our lawsuit is certainly not saying that.”
Brown’s lawsuit still is pending in federal court.
But some GOP activists say they favor letting convention delegates – not primary voters – name Republican candidates.
Harry Kibler, a Greenville-based party activist who runs the website RINO Hunt, said he supports nominating conventions, rather than primaries, because elections too often are decided by which candidate has the most money.
However, Kibler said he is not trying to force a vote on the issue at the state Republican convention in May. And he said he is not targeting Graham.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Sen. Graham,” Kibler said. “He’s not wrong on most of the issues, and he’s right on most of the issues.”
Graham has been criticized by some Tea Party Republicans as being too moderate and too willing to work with Democrats. Recently, for instance, Graham again has expressed his support for immigration reform, a hot-button issue for some hard-line Republicans.
But, at the same time, Graham has appealed to hardliners by pounding the Obama administration over its reaction to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and its nomination of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be secretary of defense. And a Winthrop University poll, released last week, suggests Graham easily should win the 2014 GOP primary, finding 71.6 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters approve of the job that he is doing in Washington.
State Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, is the sponsor of the amendment in the General Assembly that would require GOP primary voters to approve a referendum allowing the party to drop primaries in favor of nominating conventions. Quinn said neither Graham nor his staff asked him to sponsor the amendment.
Instead, Quinn said his amendment is an attempt to prevent county parties from nominating candidates to local elections at conventions, instead of by primaries.
“A small group of people ... could vote to nominate county councilmen and others by convention,” Quinn said. “If we ever decide we want to go back to a convention method, this gives taxpayers a say in that process.”