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South Carolina Republican Party gets sued for canceling its 2020 presidential primary

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President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference during the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. Two Republicans have sued the S.C. Republican Party over its decision to cancel its GOP presidential primary next year. File/AP

Two Republicans, one of them former congressman Bob Inglis, have sued the S.C. Republican Party over its decision to cancel its GOP presidential primary next year.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in state court in Richland County, alleges the party scrapped its 2020 election contest illegally and violated party rules and state election law.

The suit further contends the near-unanimous decision made by the party's Executive Committee deprives Inglis, of Greenville, and fellow plaintiff Frank Heindel of Mount Pleasant, of their right to vote for the candidate of their choosing in a primary.

"Instead, the State Executive Committee has chosen which candidate to support by fiat, and in doing so, excluded Republican voters from the process entirely — in violation of the law and its own rules," the lawsuit states.

The suit comes after the Executive Committee met Sept. 7 in Columbia and voted to forgo a presidential primary. The move effectively cleared the way for Republican incumbent President Donald Trump to receive all of the state's nominating delegates without contest.

S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick, who is named in the suit, cited the public cost of the primary as a top reason for nixing the vote. The State Election Commission estimated it would cost $1.2 million to hold a Republican presidential preference primary.

The 26-page suit, however, alleges the party broke its own rules. The complaint cites Rule 11(b)(1), which states that "Unless decided otherwise by the state party convention within two years prior to each presidential election year, the  ... party shall conduct a statewide presidential preference primary on a date selected by the chairman of the party and this date must be within two weeks after the New Hampshire Republican Primary, or earlier if necessary to preserve South Carolina’s ‘First in the South’ status."

When Republicans met for their state convention in March, they did not vote on holding a presidential primary. 

The lawsuit additionally alleges Republicans broke state law that requires political parties to follow their own rules.

The suit also cites a 2014 state party resolution that warned "anything other than a fair and legitimate primary" could irrevocably damage not only the primary process but also the state's First in the South standing.

Inglis and Heindel are being represented by Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan Washington-based nonprofit that has filed more than 50 legal actions to protect democratic institutions, according to their website.

Also representing the plaintiffs are Sowell & DuRant, a Columbia firm that specializes in cases regarding federal and state election, constitutional and statutory issues.

A state Republican Party spokesman said the organization does not comment on pending legal matters.

Inglis, a former congressman who represented the South Carolina Upstate in Washington from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2005 to 2011, said he had intended to vote in the 2020 Republican primary before it was canceled.

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"I'm participating in this lawsuit because the cancellation of the primary by a small handful of party insiders denied me — and every other South Carolina Republican — our voice in defining what the Republican Party is and who it supports," he told The Post and Courier.

"I'm fighting for all of us to get our voices back," Inglis added.

Heindel, who has spent thousands of dollars on records requests on how the State Election Commission interacted with federal agencies before and after the November 2016 election, said they are asking the courts to intervene "to ensure that the backroom dealings of a small group of party insiders cannot disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.” 

The state's Republican primary has historically been something of a bellwether in GOP presidential politics. With the exception of Newt Gingrich in 2012, the winner of the primary has gone on to become the GOP nominee.

The three Republican candidates challenging Trump for the GOP nomination have derided the South Carolina party's decision to not hold a primary. Former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford lugged a life-size cardboard cutout of the president across the state last month in an effort to call out the state GOP to reverse its decision.

On Tuesday, Sanford told The Post and Courier he welcomed the lawsuit. 

"It’s something that is neither unexpected nor unwarranted given that S.C. Republican Party broke its own bylaws," Sanford said.

Sanford also said the recent impeachment inquiry into the president amplifies the need to hold the GOP vote. 

"The idea of states, in essence, locking down the future even though they don’t know what somebody’s candidacy will look like is at a minimum a bit premature and at maximum, politically reckless or dangerous," he said.

The campaign manager for Joe Walsh, the former Illinois-congressman-turned-radio-host, told The Post and Courier they support the legal effort.

"We wish the case the best of luck. We imagine some very interesting things will unveil themselves in this process, like what kinds of communications occurred between the Trump campaign and the state party or between the RNC and the state party. We’ll be watching from the sidelines," said Lucy Caldwell, Walsh's campaign manager.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld in an emailed statement to The Post and Courier said his presidential campaign appreciated the filing of the lawsuit.

"Especially with Donald Trump’s increasingly precarious position, Republicans everywhere deserve a choice as to their candidate in next year’s election. South Carolina is no exception," Weld said. "It should never be the case that a handful of party leaders can arbitrarily silence voters and predetermine the outcome of a nominating process."

The trio of Trump challengers co-authored a Sept. 13 Washington Post Op-Ed with Walsh and Sanford in September, in which they wrote, "Each of us believes we can best lead the party. So does the incumbent. Let us each take our case to the public."

The lawsuit is seeking a jury trial.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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