GREENVILLE — State Sen. William Timmons stopped Lee Bright’s improbable comeback bid in its tracks Tuesday night, winning the GOP primary runoff in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy.
Just two years after Bright was ousted from his state Senate seat in his own GOP primary, the brash Spartanburg insurance agent won the first round in the 12-candidate Republican 4th Congressional District race, with Timmons narrowly securing the second runoff spot.
But Timmons, a first-term lawmaker from Greenville, overcame Bright in the one-on-one runoff, coalescing support behind his argument that Republicans in Greenville and Spartanburg need a polished prosecutor in the mold of Gowdy to replace him.
The 54 percent to 46 percent margin of victory, or about 5,800 votes, felt like vindication, Timmons said.
"I think the country needs people that are willing to sit down and talk through issues and try to find a solution, not just loud voices," Timmons said after Bright called to congratulate him. "The 4th Congressional District clearly knows that. It would be an honor and a privilege to be sent to Washington."
In November, Timmons will face Brandon Brown, who won a Democratic primary runoff against Doris Lee Turner on Tuesday night. Timmons will be the overwhelming favorite heading into that contest in a district that has been reliably Republican for decades.
Bright said he was proud of the race he ran.
“Throughout this race, we have received support from all parts of the district and even throughout the state," Bright said. "I look forward to continuing doing whatever I can to do to help advance the conservative agenda for the future of our nation and our state.”
Two weeks ago, Bright and Timmons emerged from a crowded field of a dozen candidates. A bevy of ambitious Upstate Republicans who had waited in the wings for years as Gowdy mulled his exit from Congress leaped at the opportunity almost immediately after the Spartanburg incumbent announced he would not seek reelection.
The runoff pitted two vastly different legislative and personality styles against each other even though the two shared many conservative policy ideals.
Timmons cast himself as the responsible former prosecutor who could go up to Washington, avoid making unnecessary enemies and defend Gowdy's legacy as a representative that Republicans in the district could be proud to see advocating on their behalf.
Bright, meanwhile, flaunted his reputation from his eight years in the state Senate where he earned a statewide reputation as a provocative firebrand willing to go further than many other Republicans on socially conservative issues.
Among other efforts, Bright vehemently defended the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds after the mass shooting at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, pushed for a "bathroom bill" requiring transgender people to use bathrooms matching the gender on their birth certificates, voted against budgets that included funding for clinics that provide abortion services and suggested South Carolina create its own currency.
Those contrasts in style were apparent to voters Tuesday as they headed to the polls.
Randy Glen, a 57-year-old truck driver from Duncan, said he voted for Bright because he "tells it like it is" and "isn't afraid to be politically incorrect."
Greer accountant Wendy Laurens, on the other hand, said she went with Timmons because she viewed him as "thoughtful" while also voicing conservative policy views.
"I know he wouldn't embarrass us," said Laurens, 43.
The race also revived some of the old battle lines from 2016, as both of the runoff candidates picked up endorsements from the candidates they supported in the presidential primary: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for Timmons and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for Bright.
Cruz invested particularly heavily in the race. While the Texas Republican has been known to endorse candidates all over the country, he went the extra mile with Bright by spending money from his political action committee on a radio ad so that voters could hear him personally voice his support.
Another senator also played a constant role in the race: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Bright challenged Graham in South Carolina's 2014 GOP primary and lost. But he noted that Timmons had later donated to his campaign. In an area where some conservative GOP primary voters view Graham with great hostility, Bright sought to channel that as a key distinction in the race.
"You've got the guy that ran against Lindsey Graham versus the guy that wrote him a check," Bright said Tuesday as he stopped for lunch at The Beacon Drive-in in Spartanburg.
After voting near Furman University on Tuesday morning, Timmons said the question in the race would be whether the district is "going to move forward or are we going to move backward.
"My record as a former prosecutor, a small business owner and a successful advocate in the state Senate shows that I'm equipped to go to Washington and get things done," Timmons said. "That's a strong contrast from my opponent. I'll leave it at that."