COLUMBIA — The South Carolina Republican Party executive committee voted almost unanimously Saturday to forgo their GOP presidential primary next year, clearing the way for President Donald Trump to receive all of the state's nominating delegates without contest.
With his enduring popularity among South Carolina Republicans, Trump's bid to become the state's GOP nominee for the second time was never particularly in doubt.
But the long-expected move to skip the primary will prevent any of Trump's GOP challengers from even competing in South Carolina, including the state's own former governor and congressman, Mark Sanford, who has continued to consider a potential long-shot campaign.
Other declared candidates include former Gov. Bill Weld of Massachusetts and former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois.
During a meeting Saturday in Columbia, the S.C. GOP executive committee decided by voice vote not to hold a primary. Only one voice could be heard voting against the idea.
S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick cited the public cost of the primary as the top reason for scrapping it. Holding a Republican presidential preference primary would cost South Carolina taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million, according to S.C. Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.
"The committee acted in the best interests of the taxpayers in South Carolina so that they don't have to pay to bind our delegates to do what they're already going to do, which is support Donald Trump at the convention in Charlotte next year," McKissick said.
Several other states are also considering scrapping their Republican presidential primaries, a reflection of Trump's remarkable takeover of the national GOP apparatus in the four years since he launched his outsider campaign and a widespread desire among Republican leadership to avoid wounding him in any way heading into the 2020 general election race.
While Sanford has still not yet announced whether he will run, he said he believes the committee's decision is a "mistake both in political and policy terms."
"It's bad policy not to hone and refine better ideas through debate and it's bad politics not to go through that process in preparation for a spirited national debate," Sanford said. "It goes without saying that I'm disappointed because I believe the contest of ideas to be the very basis of political activity and involvement, period."
Though Sanford has closer relationships in South Carolina than anywhere else, he noted that it is just one of 50 states and his message of addressing the national debt and deficit "goes well beyond the confines of South Carolina's borders."
Walsh's campaign manager, Lucy Caldwell, was more forceful in response, calling the decision "despicable and reflective of the lunacy of this sociopath who occupies the White House."
"This is not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen in America," Caldwell said. "This is the kind of disgusting, terrible behavior that we rail against in countries like North Korea and China, but those are the places that Donald Trump admires, so it's not surprising that his party is looking to bring those tactics to the U.S., today to South Carolina."
Caldwell said she has already heard from activists in South Carolina and other states who are looking to fight back against the move, both publicly and through the legal process, to ensure that Trump is not able to "silence his challengers."
"If the Trump campaign thinks that they've achieved some great win today in South Carolina, I would suggest to them that they've created an atmosphere where every day in the news from now until the election there will be coverage of how their campaign is trying to undermine the democratic process by disenfranchising voters in those states," Caldwell said.
The Walsh campaign sent McKissick a letter before the vote informing him that Walsh intended to participate in the state's primary — though they inadvertently referred to New Hampshire instead of South Carolina.
The Weld campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
In a Post and Courier-Change Research poll last month, 95 percent of likely S.C. Republican primary voters said they would vote for Trump compared to just 2 percent for Sanford.
Still, 62 percent of Republicans said in a poll earlier this year that the party should still hold a primary even if Trump is the only candidate.
McKissick contended that may be because they do not realize how much money it costs to hold a primary. Furthermore, he argued, Republicans would be best served by keeping attention on the intense Democratic presidential primary race in South Carolina, which he claimed has shown "how far left these Democrats running for president are."
"One of the ironclad rules of politics is never get in the way of the opposition when he's committing suicide," McKissick said.
The decision is not without precedent.
The S.C. GOP declined to hold primaries in 1984 and 2004 while incumbent Republicans sought re-election, and the S.C. Democratic Party opted to do the same in 1996 and 2012 when incumbent Democrats were running.
But Republicans did hold a South Carolina primary in 1992, when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan managed to garner 26 percent off of President George H.W. Bush. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke won 7 percent.
Defending Democracy Together, an advocacy group formed by Republicans who have been critical of Trump, slammed the decision as an effort to protect Trump and effectively disenfranchise GOP dissidents.
"Depriving Republicans of a chance to participate in choosing their party’s nominee is shameful, weak, and cowardly," said Sarah Longwell, the group's executive director.
Only one incumbent elected president in U.S. history has ever failed to be renominated by his party: Franklin Pierce, who lost the 1856 Democratic convention to James Buchanan.
Cindy Costa, one of South Carolina's members on the Republican National Committee, said she planned to propose a state party rule that would automatically prevent them from holding primaries against incumbent GOP presidents in the future unless the challengers have reached a certain polling threshold.
"It's ridiculous for these people to be able to come out of nowhere just seeking attention," Costa said. "I don't have any patience for that."
Trump's opponents can still access the South Carolina general election ballot by being nominated by a different party. They may also cold run as a petition candidate after submitting valid signatures from 10,000 South Carolina voters. The state does not have a write-in option for presidential elections.