4th district GOP primary

The 13 Republican candidates running to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, participated in a GOP forum in Greenville on April 9. Screenshot

All thirteen Republican candidates running to replace Congressman Trey Gowdy said Monday they would refuse to accept money or an endorsement from the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Several running for the seat, which covers Greenville and Spartanburg counties, proudly declared they don't expect the chamber would even offer it to them.

"The chamber generally hasn't approved of my service in the Senate, so I don't think that will be a problem," said state Sen. William Timmons, R-Greenville, during a Tea Party forum Monday night that featured all of the candidates on stage together for the first time.

"With all the op-eds I've written against the Ex-Im Bank, they probably won't offer it," said former Spartanburg GOP Chairman Josh Kimbrell, referring to the federal financing agency that has often divided Republicans in South Carolina. 

"They usually spend money against me," quipped former state Sen. Lee Bright of Spartanburg, who won a straw poll of attendees after the forum concluded.

The unanimous distancing from the chamber in South Carolina's conservative 4th Congressional District served as a notable rebuke to a group that has traditionally been considered one of the leading power players in GOP politics.

The remarks further demonstrate just how far Republican candidates — particularly in a crowded GOP primary to succeed Gowdy — are going to embrace the anti-establishment approach embodied by President Donald Trump.

"It's really just reflective of who votes in primaries and it's only the most committed partisans who show up and vote," said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon.

"So even if the general election is going to have a lot of moderate, pro-business Republicans, the primary is less likely to do so," he added.

On the campaign trail, Trump lambasted the U.S. Chamber as "totally controlled by the special interest groups" and part of the Washington swamp that he vowed to drain. The chamber particularly drew Trump's ire by criticizing his protectionist trade policies, which it has continued to do since he entered the White House.

"Going up against Trump or lining up with anybody who has been any less than pro-Trump is just asking to lose a few votes in an election where a few votes could make all the difference," Huffmon said.

The chamber's brand has also taken a hit among the most conservative voters in South Carolina after the state Chamber of Commerce backed an increase in the gas tax last year, arguing it was important to improve roads in order to attract new business.

While the S.C. Chamber has continued to wield significant influence in the Statehouse, the national group has increasingly become a pariah among rank-and-file conservative activists, including for its support of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"That puts the chamber strongly in line with the Republican Party of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan," Huffmon said of the chamber's pro-immigration position. "But that same stance is anathema to the Republican Party now."

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In recent Republican contests, the U.S. Chamber has often been pitted against the Club for Growth, another influential group that has argued the chamber is insufficiently committed to free-market, small-government principles.

The Club for Growth bested the chamber in a South Carolina race last year when Ralph Norman, whom they supported, defeated Tommy Pope, who had earned the chamber's support, in a hotly contested GOP primary runoff for the 5th Congressional District GOP nomination.

In the 2010 race for governor, the S.C. Chamber ended up backing Democrat Vincent Sheheen over Republican Nikki Haley.

U.S. Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes said the organization has been proud to work with Gowdy, "who has stood up for free enterprise," during his eight years in Congress.

She kept the door open for continued cooperation.

"We are hopeful that his successor continues his leadership with strong support for pro-growth policies that create jobs and increase wages in the district and across the country," she said.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.