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What are Republicans doing with the Democratic forum in Rock Hill?

Workers at Winthrop on Wednesday assemble the set in front of Byrnes Auditorium for the MSNBC show “Hardball” with Chris Matthews that will be broadcast live Friday before the Democratic presidential candidates forum at 8 p.m.
Workers at Winthrop on Wednesday assemble the set in front of Byrnes Auditorium for the MSNBC show “Hardball” with Chris Matthews that will be broadcast live Friday before the Democratic presidential candidates forum at 8 p.m. aburriss@heraldonline.com

Normally, a visit by a presidential candidate, a U.S. senator and a congressman recently in the national spotlight would be front-page news.

But normally, that visit wouldn’t be competing for attention with another major campaign event right next door.

On Friday, the national media’s attention will be focused on Winthrop University for the Democratic presidential forum, featuring candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in an interview format that will be broadcast around the country on MSNBC.

But earlier in the day, the Winthrop campus is hosting a Republican presidential event just a short walk from the venues of the Democratic festivities. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is hosting a town hall-style event with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at noon Friday at the Richardson Ballroom in the DiGiorgio Campus Center.

If that weren’t enough, the event will see an additional guest appearance by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, who was most recently in the news for his questioning of another Winthrop campus visitor, former secretary of state Clinton, during her appearance before Gowdy’s Benghazi committee.

“We’re calling him a ‘special guest host,’” said Sean Smith, Scott’s communications director. Gowdy and Scott “will trade off asking questions.”

Scott has hosted eight previous “Tim’s Town Halls” with other GOP candidates around the state leading up to the Republican presidential primary on Feb. 20, but Friday’s event is the only one scheduled for Rock Hill. The town hall was scheduled well in advance of the Democratic forum’s announcement, and the schedules of all the officials involved couldn’t be changed to a different day.

You can go to Sen. Scott’s event at noon and get educated on some important issues, and then for your entertainment you can go see the Democrats.

Wes Climer, chair of the York County Republican Party

While no one expects a lot of crossover between the audience for Scott’s town hall and any of the events surrounding the Democratic forum, anyone planning to attend one will also be able to see a candidate on the other side answering questions.

“You can go to Sen. Scott’s event at noon and get educated on some important issues, and then for your entertainment you can go see the Democrats,” said Wes Climer, chairman of the York County Republican Party.

Local Republicans don’t seem to mind having campaigns cross paths. Whatever party or candidate is drawing a crowd, leaders believe it brings a bipartisan benefit to the state, boosting the importance of its first-in-the-South primary.

“South Carolina would be a flyover state without the primary; all the candidates would likely ignore it,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. “Both (Democrats and Republicans) talk about the importance of a small state like South Carolina’s being involved in vetting the candidates, instead of having one national primary.”

Having so many candidates descend on Winthrop, both now and throughout the campaign season, puts Rock Hill in a bigger spotlight.

“Given the proximity to the Charlotte market and being (one of the) largest cities in South Carolina, it’s an appealing place for candidates,” Climer said. “It would be a mistake not to campaign here.”

Being able to effectively campaign in two states at once through Charlotte media – most of which is viewed on local cable systems across northern South Carolina – allows campaigns to “get free air time in the most expensive market outside of Atlanta,” said Glenn McCall, a member of the Republican National Committee as well as a Winthrop trustee. “This early in the process, nobody spends money in this media market.”

Don’t expect to see any local GOP disrupters alongside the Democratic forum.

“I give credit to the local Democrats,” Climer said. “They’ve been very gracious and hospitable when our candidates come through, so we’re going to do the same thing.”

Previous town halls have drawn an average of about 300 people, Smith said, and free tickets are already going fast at timstownhalls.com, where attendees also can submit questions for Scott and Gowdy to ask the candidate.

“I don’t think it will overshadow our event. We want to be in the hot spot,” Smith said. “If anyone wants to, they will have time to do both. ... They might find out we have some interesting ideas too, even if they won’t agree with them.”

Bristow Marchant: 803-329-4062, @BristowatHome

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