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Gov. Henry McMaster and President Donald Trump at a rally in South Carolina during the 2016 presidential campaign. S.C. Republicans are considering not holding a presidential primary in 2020 given Trump's enduring popularity among the GOP base. File/AP Photo/John Bazemore

WASHINGTON — A stir has begun as to whether South Carolina Republicans will hold a presidential primary in 2020 that could challenge their party leader, President Donald Trump.

Given Trump's enduring popularity among the GOP base, The Post and Courier first reported as far back as August 2017 that top Republican officials believed it was unlikely the party would hold a primary in 2020 and expose Trump to a competitor.

But media reports looking forward to the next primary season — and chatter among politicos and Republicans about Trump alternatives — has sent increasing queries to S.C. GOP headquarters.

State Chairman Drew McKissick emphasized Wednesday there have been no discussions about the party holding a 2020 vote and there likely won't be any until next summer.

"The grassroots of the state party, up and down at every level, totally support the president," McKissick said. "But the state committee makes that decision about the primary and no decision has been made."

Between now and next summer, McKissick noted the executive committee may have more information than they do now — namely whether there are any legitimate challengers to Trump at all.

The move would not be unprecedented. S.C. Republicans did not hold a primary in 2004 when sitting President George W. Bush was seeking the GOP nomination again without any serious challengers.

That led some executive committee members, like Richland County GOP chairwoman Eaddy Roe Willard, to view the prospect of an uncontested 2020 primary as "standard practice" for a popular incumbent.

Not holding a primary could also save taxpayers money. The primary process can cost millions of dollars to execute and is mostly paid for by the state-funded election commission.

Some other Republicans point to an S.C. GOP resolution that passed in the years since that 2004 race, calling for the state party to hold "spirited and competitive primaries," as reason enough not to preemptively end the process.

The resolution, which the S.C. GOP executive committee approved unanimously in May 2014, describes primaries as a "healthy way to grow the Republican Party" and urged party leaders to avoid interfering in the process.

"Republicans do not wish to be perceived as a party that simply selects its nominees in a backroom or underhanded fashion," the resolution reads.

It adds, "Anything other than a fair and legitimate primary where state party staff and officers avoid even the appearance of intervention could irrevocably damage the integrity of our primary process and inadvertently affect our 'First in the South' presidential preference status."

As a result of those concerns, the resolution concluded that all GOP officers and staff should "treat all campaigns equally, maintaining public neutrality in the primary process."

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McKissick argued the resolution doesn't have any bearing on the presidential primary decision because it is not binding and was mostly intended to prevent the party from providing financial support to one candidate over another in a competitive primary.

"The executive committee can change its mind about anything it resolves tomorrow," McKissick said.

The issue of whether there would or should be a primary in South Carolina, home to the nation's traditional first-in-the-South vote, was stoked again by a report Wednesday in the Washington Examiner that kicked up further speculation about the possibility the party would pass this time.

It may be that the resolution about a primary isn't connected to presidential politics. Former S.C. GOP chairman Matt Moore, who led the party when the 2014 resolution passed, said the resolution came about due to a failed effort by some activists to change the party's U.S. Senate nomination process that year to a convention instead of a primary in an attempt to unseat U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.

"The resolution was intended to address state primaries, not presidential primaries," Moore said. "But certainly the spirit of the resolution still holds."

Some Republicans, like Charleston County GOP 2nd vice-chair Rouzy Vafaie, feel the 2014 resolution should serve as a message.

"If there's no opponent, I completely get it. It saves the state a lot of money," Vafaie said. "But if there is an opponent, whether it's Kasich or Flake or whoever it is, you may be violating the bylaws and you're kind of going against the spirit of competition."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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