In a move a local political expert says is unusual, a group of conservative Dorchester County Republicans wants to help voters decide who to vote for in the June 12 primary.
And it's all about a scorecard not everyone agrees with.
The Republican-leaning county will settle three County Council races and three state House seats on its GOP primary. County Democrats have no local primary races this year.
Dorchester’s Republican Party, which has about 60 dues-paying members in a fast-growing county of nearly 160,000 people, has vetted 19 candidates and released a “comprehensive scorecard” of each based on a 100-point scale. All but one scored between 49 and 99.
That's the rub, since the idea of scoring candidates is in the eye of the reviewer.
“You can talk to your friends off the record, but to put anything official out with the Dorchester County Republican Party’s name on it seems like it may not be the best thing,” said College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts.
“It’s not something I’ve heard of and has some potential pitfalls," he added. "I would think you would stay neutral as a local or state party until the nominee is chosen, and then it would be all hands on deck to get that person elected.”
Some of the candidates were so skeptical of the process that they brought friends to witness their interviews.
“I asked a whole bunch of questions early on, and they refused to answer,” said County Council District 2 incumbent David Chinnis, who was pleased with his score of 80. “My challenge was, are all the candidates being interviewed by the same three people?”
Two to three members of a five-person committee participated in the interviews with each candidate. They quizzed three 1st Congressional District candidates, eight state House contenders, seven County Council candidates and Cindy Chitty, who is unopposed in her bid for the unexpired term of late county Treasurer Mary Pearson.
Party members submitted current events questions that were used to create a questionnaire. In person, candidates were grilled on their involvement in the county party and then asked questions specific to their office.
The party refused to give its list of questions to The Post and Courier Thursday.
"We provided plenty of open-ended questions to see how candidates' answers mirrored the GOP platform," said party Chairman Tim Higgins, who was not on the committee.
Mandy Kimmons, who is running for state House District 97, said she was only asked two policy questions from her interviewers’ larger list. Kimmons, who has not been active in the local party but is a member of the state party and the Summerville Republican Women, had one of the lowest scores doled out, 49.
“A lot of it was, ‘Are you a member of the organization? Have you participated in redistricting?’ Stuff like that,” said the first-time candidate. “I really felt like it was the good-old-boy system at its finest.
“I am unapologetically conservative, and I don’t know what else to tell them. If they felt some other way, I’m sorry.”
Chinnis felt the questions were skewed toward candidates who are active in the local group, as he has been in the last decade as an executive committee member and county convention chair.
“I think it (the scorecard) said I was a Republican active in the party in Dorchester County,” Chinnis said. “But it was not a litmus test that’s indicative of principles.”
Chinnis said he would describe Dorchester County Council Chairman Jay Byars as conservative, but Byars’ score was lower because he has not been as active in the local party. He scored a 67.
“I stand proudly on my record and conservative credentials and have been fighting against the establishment for my constituents since I first ran,” said Byars, who is seeking a third term as the District 7 representative.
He also questioned the methodology of the vetting process.
“I would love to see the published questions, answers and scoring,” he said. “This smacks of personal politics by a small group who have an agenda."
The party's numbers have dwindled in recent years, Byars said, adding, "That speaks volumes about the current lack of leadership and agenda of this small group.”
Higgins, who has been chairman since late 2014, acknowledged that numbers are down and the party membership is more conservative than it has been.
“I think some of the folks didn’t like that we’re now more closely following the Republican platform and they decided to leave,” he said. “But we still have good representation and we have a wide cross-section of Dorchester County.”
The party’s goal is to “educate the public on what is going on from a county party basis,” he said. “This scorecard is vital because anyone in Dorchester County can run as a Republican but they may not represent the conservative values of our party, like limited government, strong defense, economic freedom and traditional family.”
The impetus for the scorecard was the 1st Congressional District race, where incumbent Mark Sanford is being challenged by current state Rep. Katie Arrington and Dimitri Cherny, whose website lists him as “Not a Republican. Not a Democrat. Just an American.”
“A number of our members said, 'How can someone who shares none of the values of the Republican Party run under Republican label?’” Higgins said of Cherny. “The idea for the vetting committee came out of the body. It was not top down. It was bottom up. They wanted some accountability, and the only way we could find to do that was this vetting process.”
Indeed, Cherny scored a zero on his interview. He did not return a phone call Thursday.
“Anyone can call themselves a Republican, but just because you call yourself a Republican doesn’t make you a Republican,” Higgins said.
Groups like the League of Women Voters provide information without taking sides, and the county party should, too, Knotts said.
“By getting involved in the nomination process, I do think you run the risk of alienating some of the very people that you need to build the party,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a risky territory to be in. It’s going to set up nicely for criticism from Democrats when one of these people who gets a not-so-good grade is somebody that now you’re going to have to get behind in the general election.”
Dorchester County's local GOP primary races include:
- House District 94, where County Councilman Con Chellis, Dorchester District 2 School Board member Evan Guthrie and businessman Glenn Zingarino are vying for the nomination to face Democrat Damian Daly in the general election.
- House District 97, where Don Johnson and Mandy Kimmons are facing off for the right to challenge longtime state Rep. Patsy Knight, a Democrat, in November.
- House District 98, where incumbent Rep. Chris Murphy is being challenged for the third time by County Councilman Larry Hargett. No Democrat is running.
- County Council District 2, where incumbent David Chinnis is challenged by School Board member Gail Hughes.
- County Council District 3, where incumbent George Bailey faces newcomer and former state trooper Robert Gatch.
- County Council District 7, where incumbent Jay Byars is running against Lester Dempsey, who also ran against him in 2014, and former sheriff candidate Robert Biddle.