COLUMBIA — The race to lead the South Carolina GOP kicked off with a jolt in late March when pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood, fresh off a slew of failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, announced he had moved to the state from Georgia and would challenge incumbent Chairman Drew McKissick.
The decision came as a surprise to many political observers in the state.
After all, S.C. Republicans had just completed one of their most successful election cycles in recent history — easily winning an expensive U.S. Senate race, flipping back a congressional seat and expanding their majorities in the Statehouse — and McKissick had already secured the crucial endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
Over the ensuing month, though, Wood traveled around the Palmetto State spraying a plethora of innuendos at a wide range of targets, including McKissick, U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, Gov. Henry McMaster, former Vice President Mike Pence and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
While McKissick initially brushed off Wood's bid, saying anyone is welcome to run, he has grown increasingly assertive in pushing back against him, calling him a "carpetbagging RINO (Republican in name only)."
"Lin Wood is so far up in bizarro land, he couldn't find his way out with a flashlight and a map," McKissick told The Post and Courier. "The guys in the little white coats need to grab him with a butterfly net and take him back to Georgia."
McKissick and his supporters are confident they have now secured more than enough delegates for him to comfortably win reelection at the state party convention May 15. But the path to get there became a turbulent — and at times bizarre — battle between warring factions over who can more legitimately claim the mantle to Trump's legacy.
Wood pushes in
Wood's outsider bid began when he was approached by a few conservative activists from the Upstate, including Greenville Tea Party Chairman Pressley Stutts, who have spent the past few years needling party leaders and saw in Wood an attractive frontman for their latest efforts to take over the GOP apparatus.
In March, Wood invited the group to spend a couple of days at one of his newly purchased plantations in Beaufort County.
"They asked me to consider running because they felt like the establishment, headed up by Drew McKissick, was not being responsive to the people who make up the party and they wanted to find someone that would kind of turn it on its head," Wood said in an interview with The Post and Courier.
McKissick rejected the notion that he, a longtime conservative activist who has been involved in South Carolina politics for decades, is disconnected from the grassroots.
"It would be hard to say that's the case after being elected to this job twice already and obviously having the vast majority of support around the state right now," McKissick said. "In their estimation, anybody who's been in the party longer than five minutes is the establishment."
The feud came to a head at the recent Hampton County GOP convention, when Wood confronted McKissick and vaguely insinuated that he knew something about him and Graham.
"It's going to come out," Wood said in the conversation captured on video and spread on social media. "You need to accept that."
"You don't know anything," McKissick responded. "Bring it on out."
Asked about the accusation by The Post and Courier, Wood would only say that he has "some information" but repeatedly declined to disclose it.
That response followed a pattern from Wood, who often implies political figures are engaged in nefarious behavior before adding that he's not directly accusing them of anything, only saying they should be investigated.
"I don't need the proof," Wood said. "I ask questions when I hear things. You need to go look for the proof."
Humor, hyperbole or serious
Alternatively, Wood will say that some of his statements, like social media posts claiming that Trump is actually still in the White House, are intended to be humorous, while others, like Pence being a traitor who should be executed by firing squad, are hyperbole.
Some of Wood's other focuses have little to do with the job of S.C. GOP chairman. He often devotes substantial portions of his remarks to decrying child sex trafficking, an issue he describes as "the real pandemic."
Though Trump once welcomed Wood's support of his election fraud claims, he has since appeared to distance himself from the attorney. The former president endorsed McKissick's reelection twice — once before Wood got into the race and then, leaving no room for ambiguity, again the day after Wood launched his bid.
Wood and Stutts claimed that Trump's initial endorsement of McKissick was actually an old one from two years ago, but McKissick said that is false. Wood also suggested without evidence that Trump has some ulterior motive for the endorsement that will come out in the future and said he would not have asked Trump for an endorsement anyway.
"I wouldn't expect the president to embrace me by an endorsement and then have the media go out and attack him for what I'm saying," Wood said.
Nate Leupp, who recently ended his tenure as Greenville County GOP chairman and became the 4th Congressional District GOP chairman, said he believes Wood and his allies — many of whom have been thorns in his side for years — capitalized on a "perfect storm."
"They're manipulating Republicans who have never been active in the party, using the frustration they have with the national election and people who don't support Trump and telling these new people that the same narratives are happening at the county and state level when that's far from the truth," Leupp said.
Stutts countered that Wood's message is resonating "because it's about getting the truth out, and that is what people are starving for in this country."
"Donald Trump had a similar message and people didn't take him seriously at first," Stutts said. "But once he became president, he kept more promises than all the presidents combined in the last 50 years."
South Carolina is not the first state to experience a similar struggle for power at the state party level in recent years.
After losing successive Republican primaries for the U.S. Senate, conservative activist Kelli Ward seized control of the Arizona GOP in 2019. And former Florida congressman Allen West ousted the incumbent chairman of the Texas GOP in 2020 a few years after relocating to the state.
McKissick now appears likely to avoid a similar fate.
"The Republican Party is a big tent party," McKissick said. "It's not a circus tent party."
But Wood said he will continue fighting until the election and threatened to sue anyone who called him a conspiracy theorist or questioned his mental state.
"Do you think the people that support me in South Carolina think I'm crazy?" Wood said. "Do you think the people that support me in Georgia think I'm crazy? Do you think all the millions of people that support me around the world think I'm crazy? I'm not crazy."