COLUMBIA - Sometimes, political parties need a little bit of protection from themselves.
That's the message that a state Senate panel sent Tuesday when it recommended a bill that would make it more difficult for Republicans and Democrats to choose candidates at party conventions, where typically only die-hard partisans and activists show up to make their voices heard.
State Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Lindsey Graham, also pushed a measure that would make it possible for any South Carolinian - without the now-required training - to carry a concealed firearm.
The Senate panel recommendation is seeking to add an extra hurdle to changing the party nominating process. Parties can choose to nominate candidates for office at party conventions, but in South Carolina the current process allows primary voters across the state to choose the party's nominee for political office.
That is the tradition and should remain, senators said. Under the proposed bill, the only way a party could change to nominations by a convention is if three-fourths of the convention votes for the change and then, in the next election cycle, a majority of primary voters say a party convention should have nominating power.
That would essentially mean that voters would choose to take themselves out of the process, said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I think that would be kind of hard for them to do," Martin said in an interview. "They would be voting to vote themselves out of the primary in the future."
He said that South Carolina has a tradition of open primaries.
"It takes you back to the smoke-filled rooms, back to the days of the 1900s," he said of nominating candidates by convention. "We believe we have protected the expected primary process."
Other states have seen conventions used by the tea party to nominate candidates more to their liking. In Virginia, the governor's race changed markedly last year when a tea party-favored candidate gained the Republican nomination through a convention rather than a primary.
Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston politics professor, said that the committee's vote shows that there is still a fight for the heart of the Republican Party and that the vocal tea party doesn't yet dominate.
"It's very vocal and very loud, but how deep is the support?" Knotts said of the tea party. "We're going to see some evidence of that, and a great test with (the campaign against) Lindsey Graham. I don't think it's fair to say the tea party dominates the Republican Party yet."
Knotts was referring to the challenge of U.S. Sen. Graham by Bright and other tea party-backed candidates trying to unseat him from the Republican ticket.
The nominating measure was technically already passed in a separate bill last year and clarified in an Attorney General's opinion in November, Senate staffers said. The committee and the General Assembly want to be sure that the language in the law is clear, Martin said.
Third parties that do not have primaries would not be affected.
The meeting was also consumed by talk of guns. Bright pushed against Martin and others when he proposed a measure that would allow all South Carolinians to carry guns without having to go through the current Concealed Weapons Permit process, which generally requires that the gun owner not have any felony convictions and a certain level of training.
He said South Carolina should be more like Arizona in that respect, where gun ownership is not controlled by the government. Even former felons are entitled to their Second Amendment rights, Bright said.
"Martha Stewart has a felony, should she not be able to protect herself?" Bright asked. "This is the right to self-defense. We sit up in this ivory tower and make decisions. . People make mistakes in their lives and you say, 'I'm going to fundamentally take away your right to defend yourself?' This debate is about 'Does the government know better or do the people know better?"
Some on the committee agreed, saying that guns are tools and only dangerous depending on the user. Sen. Thomas D. Corbin, R-Spartanburg, said he carries two knives. "I can take either one of those pocket knives and kill you with it," Corbin said. "(A gun) is a tool - as is a pocket knife or a shovel."
Martin and others pushed back, saying that training and a felony-free record should be basic requirements for those who want to carry concealed weapons.
"With this, Lord only knows how many less-than law abiding citizens could legally carry," Martin said. The committee voted to take up the discussion another day.
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