Elections

Mark Sanford not ruling out legal action to get on SC GOP presidential primary ballot

Mark Sanford is not ruling out taking legal action to ensure he appears on 2020 presidential primary ballots around the country.

That could include filing a lawsuit against the GOP in his own home state.

Sanford, a South Carolina Republican who served in Congress and as governor, told The State on Friday he and his team were “looking at options” to challenge Republican parties that are seeking to cancel their presidential primary elections next year in deference to the incumbent, Donald Trump.

“I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t like that particular angle,” said Sanford, who launched his presidential bid last Sunday. “It’s just never been my default setting — people see something goes wrong, they sue somebody. I like to look for other ways to resolve issues.”

But, he added, “any number of people have called suggesting” he pursue legal action, and “I’m listening and I would just say, ‘stay tuned.’”

Sanford will “address his views on the importance of state Republican primaries” in a swing across South Carolina on Monday, according to a press release from his campaign.

Last week, Sanford told The State he was disinclined to take legal action as Republican Parties in Kansas, Nevada and Arizona were all poised to cancel their primary elections. The South Carolina GOP’s executive committee voted to cancel its election last Saturday, 24 hours before Sanford made his primary challenge to Trump official.

“I’ve been contacted by a number of people wanting to do that,” he said on Sunday, “but I believe life gives you a lemon, you keep living and make lemonade and move around it. Was it a disappointment? Yes. Something of a setback? Yes ... But what we’re after is a debate that is far bigger than the borders of South Carolina.”

Sanford has said he is less focused on winning the 2020 primary election than he is forcing a serious conversation about the rising national debt.

Still, the chance to appear on the ballot in primary elections, particularly in his own home state, would significantly boost Sanford’s chances of making traction in his long-shot bid to take down Trump.

‘Legitimate challengers’

Sanford would face challenges in taking legal action against the S.C. GOP.

Party leaders have insisted there is precedent for their decision. In 2004, South Carolina Republicans called off their primary given a lack of any — or any serious — opposition to then-President George W. Bush, and did the same in 1984 for President Ronald Reagan.

State Democrats have done this, too, canceling primaries in 1996 for President Bill Clinton and in 2012 for President Barack Obama.

“As a general rule, when either party has an incumbent president in the White House, there’s no rationale to hold a primary,” S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick said in a statement after last week’s vote. “With no legitimate primary challenger and President Trump’s record of results, the decision was made to save South Carolina taxpayers over $1.2 million and forgo an unnecessary primary.”

The difference now, however, is that Trump currently has three primary challengers: In addition to Sanford, former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld have entered the field.

Furthermore, the state Republican Party did, in fact, allow a primary against incumbent President George H. W. Bush in 1992 when conservative commentator Pat Buchanan sought the GOP nomination. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke also appeared on the ballot in the state’s GOP presidential primary that year.

There also is some disagreement about whether the S.C. GOP followed its own rules in canceling its 2020 primary.

According to its bylaws that were last updated in 2017, the state party must decide at its annual convention whether to cancel its presidential primary election scheduled to take place the following year. The S.C. GOP held its convention earlier this year and took no such vote; the party’s much smaller executive committee took action last month.

However, there is another provision in the party’s rule book that states the rules “shall be interpreted and applied so as to substantially accomplish their objectives,” and “the spirit and not the letter of each Rule shall be controlling.”

Chip Felkel, a South Carolina Republican consultant who has been vocal in his criticism of the Trump administration, said he had no idea whether Sanford would be successful in a legal challenge but hoped the candidate would endeavor to force the party to schedule a primary.

“These are legitimate challengers,” Felkel said. “These are two former governors and a member of Congress. It’s not like it’s some homeless person, someone who managed to put the money up to run.”

Ultimately, the fight would be between the Sanford campaign and the S.C. Republican Party. A spokesman for the South Carolina State Election Commission told The State that unlike statewide primaries in June and the general elections in November, presidential primaries are not set in statute, and the legislatures gives authority to state parties to decide if and when to convene them.

Joe Jackson, the South Carolina communications director for the National Republican Committee, declined to comment.

Maayan Schechter contributed to this report.

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Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
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