The political drama over South Carolina’s role in choosing the next Republican presidential nominee usually ends once the state’s primary is held, but that’s not the case this year.
A quieter but equally intense contest has begun as the campaigns and their supporters try to line up possible delegates in case front-runner Donald Trump doesn’t win the nomination on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention
All 50 of the state’s GOP delegates will be committed to vote for Trump, who dominated its Feb. 13 primary, but they are bound to support him only on the first ballot.
After that, they’re free to make another choice.
State Republican Chairman Matt Moore said he has never seen more interest in the party’s process of choosing national delegates.
“Usually, serving as a national delegate is an honorary position,” he said. “This year, however, it’s taken on a much more serious role.
“Emotions are high,” added Charleston County GOP Chairman Larry Kobrovsky. “I have no earthly idea how it’s going to play out.”
Moore said the campaigns of all three remaining candidates — Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — have requested full delegate lists from the state party.
“My assumption is each campaign is calling through that delegate list and asking delegates who they’ll support on a second ballot at the national convention,” Moore said.
John Steinberger, a Charleston Republican and Trump supporter, has been making those calls and already has lined up businessman Eddie Taylor and former state Sen. Mike Rose as delegate candidates who would remain committed to Cruz.
About 16 people already have signed up to be considered for one of three 1st Congressional District delegate slots up for grabs, said Jim Davis, GOP chairman for the district. And that number likely will grow before the Saturday deadline.
Davis said he has heard some grumbling from people who would like to play a role in delegate selection but can’t because they didn’t participate in last year’s Republican convention.
“I’ve heard some say, ‘I’m being cheated,’ ‘The deck is stacked,’ all the stuff you see on Facebook,” he said. “It’s emotion and frustration and generally a lack of understanding.”
There are more than 900 people eligible to be national delegates. Davis said the process of becoming a delegate or choosing delegates is “pretty straightforward, but if you’re not into this ‘inside baseball’ part of the rules and regulations, it might not be that obvious.”
Moore hasn’t tipped his hand on how he might vote on a second ballot but said he would look at which candidate would help the party be successful in the general election — and who their vice presidential pick would be.
“I’m considering all options right now,” he said. “I want to talk to all candidates and their teams. I’m not ruling anything out at this point.”
But many seeking to be delegates have.
Former Berkeley County GOP Chairman Terry Hardesty, who is running for delegate, said that like all delegates, he is committed to Trump as the state primary winner on a first ballot. But if there is a second ballot, he said he is telling people he would vote for someone else, likely Cruz, whom he supported in the primary.
“I’m bound on the first vote,” he said. “After that, I’m going to vote for the conservative for president.”
Hardesty said he believes Trump’s win in South Carolina was heavily influenced by Democrats crossing over to take part in the GOP primary, picking Trump to upset the GOP process.
For proof, he said Trump did well in open primary states, such as South Carolina, but had a harder time in closed primary states.
Roy Jessup of Goose Creek said he considers himself a member of the Republicans’ tea party wing, and he also supported Cruz in the primary. If he’s elected a delegate and there’s a second ballot in Cleveland, “I will stick with Ted Cruz.”
Former Charleston County GOP Chairman Mark Hartley has been a delegate or alternate at seven consecutive Republican national conventions, but he is unsure if he will try this time. Hartley supported Sen. Lindsey Graham in the primary.
“The fact that I was never on the Cruz or Trump bandwagons, it’s sort of different from past times,” Hartley said, adding he is unsure if his old strategy — calling delegates to try to win their support — would even work this time.
“The three campaigns will know exactly every single person who is running for a delegate and where they’re going to be,” he said.
Hartley said if he were to be a delegate, he would support the most conservative candidate who could get elected in November. “I just hope everybody gets behind the nominee 100 percent,” he added. “Hopefully that’s what will happen after the convention.”
Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, which awarded GOP delegates proportionately to their statewide results, South Carolina is the first state to allot its delegates on a more winner-take-all approach.
That means Trump won all 50 delegates here, even though he got just under a third of the vote in February.
In that sense, the state’s delegate contingent will be seen as “unbalanced,” Moore said, and more ripe to vote differently on a hypothetical second ballot.
“That explains most of the interest in South Carolina.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said everyone is watching South Carolina to see if an effort to strip Trump of some of his delegates gains steam in other states.
“You’re going to see efforts to foil Trump anywhere he’s got delegates,” Sabato said. “‘Double agents’ are being appointed Trump delegates, and they’ll defect the instant the first ballot is finished, assuming Trump doesn’t hit 1,237 — the magic number.”
Jim Davis, chairman of the GOP 1st Congressional District, said delegates have been getting calls and emails seeking their support, but that’s not necessarily unusual before a district convention.
“But having it be such a full-court press is certainly different from 2012,” he said. “We’re in a different world.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that former state Sen. Mike Rose would support Donald Trump on subsequent ballots, if Rose is elected as a delegate to Cleveland. This story has been updated to reflect the correction.