Nearly a quarter of South Carolina Republicans say a 2020 presidential primary would only be an opportunity for President Donald Trump’s enemies to hurt him.
So, of course, they shouldn’t hold one.
Now, that may sound like the premise of a “Jeopardy!” question — “I’ll take ‘Things Authoritarians Say’ for $1,000, Alex” — but it’s actually a tidbit from a recent Post and Courier-Change Research poll. And it echoes some pretty big hints that state party Chairman Drew McKissick has been making for years.
“The grassroots of the state party, up and down at every level, totally support the president,” McKissup — er, McKissick — told The Post and Courier’s Jamie Lovegrove in the winter. “But the state committee makes that decision about the primary and no decision has been made.”
That’s not technically true, but no point quibbling. Point is, in a couple of weeks the South Carolina Republican Party Executive Committee meets to make a decision on the presidential primary. And it’s not the dilemma pundits and politicians have made it out to be. It’s a no-brainer.
This is what the committee should do: Set a date for a primary, and a filing deadline. If any qualified candidate files, presto, there’s a primary. And if not, save the taxpayers some money. Maybe hold a caucus or county organizational meetings if the GOP wants to fly its flag.
But if the party goes silent to avoid dissension, it becomes little more than an apparatus of the present administration.
Even Gov. Henry McMaster, a friend and supporter of Trump, says that’s what the party should do. “I’m not encouraging anyone to run against the president,” McMaster told the paper this spring. “But if anyone wants to run, then of course we should accommodate them with a primary.”
Some folks, including many Republicans, argue that there should be a GOP primary in the winter even if no one other candidate files. Failing to hold a vote could alienate potential voters, hurt the party’s outreach efforts. And, you know, people in this country get to choose their leaders.
Those are all good points.
There are precedents for not holding a primary. The state GOP took a pass in 2004 when President George W. Bush had no opposition on the ballot, and the South Carolina Democratic Party didn’t really vote in 2012 because no one qualified to run against President Barack Obama ... in this state.
The Democrats did hold organizational meetings on primary day, just to remain active.
The legitimate argument against hosting an uncontested primary is that it costs taxpayers money. That’s fair, and few people criticized the Dems or the Republicans the last time they bypassed that step in the nominating process. But if there is a legitimate candidate, people deserve a right to vote.
Not that there’s likely to be a choice. Most of those mentioned as potential challengers to Trump — former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — have made no moves to run. Which brings us to Mark Sanford. Our ex- governor and congressman is exploring a presidential campaign, primarily to highlight how Trump and Congress have exploded the deficit.
The same poll that shows 24 percent support for not holding a primary has Sanford winning about 2 percent. That’s not much of a threat, but it isn’t an argument against voting, either. If we let polls stand in for elections, Trump would be golfing at his properties on his own time this weekend.
McKissick is probably right that Trump is so popular among South Carolina Republicans that he’d win here in a walk. But Republicans don’t all think alike, and they don’t always vote alike. If there’s an alternative, they should have a voice.
And if Trump is as popular and powerful as McKissick says he is, what is there to worry about? Parties are not supposed to take sides in contested primaries. If the executive committee makes a decision based on whether it’s going to hurt the president’s feelings, then the GOP isn’t really a political party anymore.
It’s just a fan club.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.