As I wrestle with how to most clearly express my opinion on the decision to cancel next year’s S.C. Republican presidential primary, one word comes to mind: “Dumb.”
For those who don’t know, here’s background: On Sept. 7 the executive committee of the S.C. Republican Party, by voice vote, changed the party rules in order to forego a 2020 presidential primary, which likely would have been held in February. This means South Carolina’s 50 votes at next summer’s National Republican Convention will be automatically cast for President Trump.
And it means some 750,000 rank-and-file Republicans – whose votes, financial support, and volunteer efforts are so needed by party leadership – won’t have a direct voice in the process.
Understandably, the committee intended to benefit President Trump by cancelling the primary. But did they? The President is all but assured of the nomination, yet the committee somehow managed to come off as afraid he wouldn’t fend off a challenge. With his nomination not seriously in question, it’s hard to see how this maneuver helps him.
The state party chairman defended the move by saying the President lacked a viable challenger. Maybe so, but primary voters tend to be a well-informed bunch, and they’re certainly capable of deciding that point.
The party chairman also cited the cost, saying that scrapping a vote would save tax dollars. That’d be more credible if protecting the taxpayers was an ideal that Republican leadership still embraced. Sadly, neither party shows much interest in fiscal responsibility these days.
This isn’t about President Trump. Nor is it about Mark Sanford, nor of either of the other announced Republican challengers. It’s about voters. Voters want a say, and they should have one.
And that includes many devoted Trump backers who’d love another chance to go to the polls and show their support for the President. Incidentally, a recent poll showed nearly two-thirds of likely Republican voters say the party should hold a primary even if President Trump were the only one on the ballot.
This comes across as a power grab by the elite – and against the peasantry. It’s true that there’s a precedent for skipping presidential primaries; Republicans did it in 1984 and 2004, and Democrats did it in 1996 and 2012. Of course, in those cases incumbent presidents were running virtually uncontested from within their party. And in 1992, when incumbent president George H.W. Bush faced intraparty opposition, S.C. Republicans went ahead with a primary vote. Even President Bush’s most steadfast supporters didn’t waiver, because they believed in the strength of their candidate and his ideals.
South Carolina’s Republican and Democratic presidential primaries have always been an exciting time for our state. Because of their early placement on the calendar – each is their party’s third nominating contest, and the first in the south – the country’s eyes are on us. For a few weeks every four years, the national spotlight shines on our state, our people, our uniqueness, our traditions.
Primaries give South Carolinians a front row seat to the choosing of the leader of the free world. They’re a financial boon for the state, bringing in millions in campaign-related spending.
Primaries are healthy for the democratic process. They allow for people to become engaged in a way that general elections don’t. That’s especially important in South Carolina, a state in which the nominees for both parties skip in the fall as they devote their time to so-called “battleground states.” And they’re good for the candidates and the parties. They bring citizens into the political process, provide for the airing of ideas, and help cultivate campaign and organizational talent.
Cancelling a primary benefits no one, including the candidate the party hierarchy supports. Letting people vote would have sent President Trump to the nominating convention with the blessing of the state’s voters while giving conservative voters who supported other candidates the knowledge they at least had some input. Denying hundreds of thousands of Republicans a role in the process was an unforced error, to borrow a sports metaphor. The executive committee of the S.C. Republican party has put an asterisk beside a nomination that wasn’t otherwise in doubt and probably alienated lots of ordinary voters they’ll need for success in the future. And that’s just dumb.
Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state’s Comptroller.