WEST COLUMBIA — The Democratic nominee for South Carolina governor has withdrawn his candidacy for three smaller parties after questions were raised about whether it could potentially knock him off the ballot altogether.
But one party rejected James Smith's attempted nomination bid on Saturday, anyway, with its leader suggesting the 22-year state lawmaker from Columbia could face a legal challenge to remain in the race.
Smith, who won the Democratic primary for governor in June, submitted paperwork Thursday afternoon to simultaneously seek the nominations for the Working Families, Green and Libertarian parties.
The strategy, known as a "fusion candidacy," is not unprecedented in South Carolina, one of eight states where it is legal. By winning the nomination for multiple parties, the candidate can appear on the ballot multiple times and all the votes for that candidate are accumulated at the end.
But leaders of two of the smaller parties said Smith had not reached out to them before filing, and the chairman for the Libertarian Party suggested they were likely to vote against his nomination.
That could have presented an extraordinary problem for Smith: According to a South Carolina law known as the "sore loser" statute, if a candidate loses the nomination for any party, they are barred from appearing on the general election ballot for any other party — even if they already won a primary.
So shortly after The Post and Courier brought up the possibility Friday that the move could derail Smith's candidacy and leave the Democrats searching for a new nominee, Smith decided to "eliminate potential misunderstanding" by withdrawing from consideration for the three smaller parties.
"We didn't want anything to distract from our message or our positive vision for South Carolina's future," Smith said.
The saga may not be over yet, however.
S.C. Libertarian Party chairman Stewart Flood told the party's executive committee Saturday that he holds the legal opinion that candidates cannot withdraw after formal filing for a seat ends in March. As a result, the committee decided to vote on Smith's nomination during its monthly meeting at the Grecian Gardens restaurant in West Columbia.
I’m now at the South Carolina Libertarian Party executive committee meeting, where members are celebrating their chairman’s comment to the @postandcourier yesterday upon learning that @JamesSmithSC was seeking their party’s #SCGov nomination: https://t.co/qnYHPOhrXK pic.twitter.com/WiztyB0GtS— Jamie Lovegrove (@jslovegrove) August 4, 2018
Following an extended debate, all 16 committee members voted against Smith. While Flood said the Libertarian Party does not have the resources to file a lawsuit, he argued the move could allow others to challenge Smith's spot on the ballot against incumbent Republican Gov. Henry McMaster in November.
Some Libertarian committee members expressed concern about the repercussions of voting against Smith and imperiling his candidacy, fretting that it would amount to "handing McMaster the election."
But the group ultimately concluded that Smith does not share key beliefs of the party, which is generally focused on shrinking government. And some said they were offended that the candidate had approached the process in such a haphazard manner without first engaging with the party leaders about their ideas.
In between debates about @JamesSmithSC, the SC Libertarian exec committee tosses around fundraising ideas, including a “Libertarian Party Dad Bod calendar.”“If we can get some official support behind this, it’ll go gangbusters. Sell them on Amazon and we’ll make a mint.” #scpol pic.twitter.com/SbGOPkLBvd— Jamie Lovegrove (@jslovegrove) August 4, 2018
The McMaster campaign is not planning on taking any legal action, McMaster's chief strategist Tim Pearson told The Post and Courier on Saturday. Earlier in the day, Pearson tweeted that Smith's move is "quite possibly the stupidest" thing he has seen from a South Carolina campaign.
While the decision to seek the nomination for additional parties could have allowed Smith to pick up a few extra votes, he also said it was designed to demonstrate that he would not be a partisan governor.
Even though he is withdrawing from consideration for the three other parties, Smith said he and running mate Mandy Powers Norrell "will remain independent thinkers" and will "continue to pursue practical, nonpartisan solutions faced by all of our state's people."
South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Trav Robertson said fusion voting is a practice that makes the Palmetto State unique.
"The Libertarians missed an opportunity to nominate a war hero in James Smith and we're committed to doing everything in our power to make sure he's the next governor, so that he can serve every South Carolinian," Robertson said.