South Carolina GOP appears to violate own rules in canceling primary for Trump

The South Carolina Republican Party appeared to violate its own rules on Saturday when the party's executive committee voted to cancel next year's primary election.

The executive committee voted nearly unanimously to cancel the primary because President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE had drawn "no legitimate primary challenger," the state party's chairman, Drew McKissick, said.

Trump has drawn two former Republican elected officials as challengers. Former Rep. Mark SanfordMark SanfordThe Hill's Campaign Report: Late bids surprise 2020 Democratic field Michigan GOP attempting to have Trump be only Republican candidate on ballot Weld files to run in GOP presidential primary in New Hampshire MORE (R-S.C.), who served two terms as governor of South Carolina, is also considering joining the field.

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Any of those candidates may decide to sue the South Carolina GOP, some Republican insiders said, because Saturday's vote ran contrary to the state party's rules.

The rule that governs South Carolina's presidential preference primary allows the state party to cancel the primary only by a vote at the state party convention within two years of the subsequent primary.

South Carolina Republicans did not vote to cancel the primary at either of its last two conventions.

The rule gives the state Republican executive committee power to reverse a convention's decision to cancel the primary if "circumstances surrounding the presidential election shall have substantially changed such that a primary would be deemed advisable."

But it does not give the executive committee the opposite power — the power to unilaterally cancel the primary.

"This shady backroom deal where a small group of party insiders makes a big decision that stops thousands of voters from participating in the process appears to violate party rules and is precisely the kind of thing that turns people off to politics," said Rob Godfrey, a former state Republican Party communications director and a former top adviser to former South Carolina Gov. Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Former Ukraine envoy offers dramatic testimony Nikki Haley: 'We should always protect whistleblowers' Haley: Giuliani should've been named 'special envoy' to Ukraine MORE.

"Bad for the party, the process and the president," Godfrey told The Hill.

McKissick said in a statement that there was "no rationale to hold a primary" because a Republican incumbent is seeking reelection. He pointed to 1984 and 2004, when Republican incumbents did not face primaries, and 1996 and 2012, when the state Democratic Party canceled its primaries and renominated incumbent presidents.

Asked about the rule governing presidential primaries, state Republican Party communications director Joe Jackson pointed to a separate rule.

That rule reads as follows: "These Rules shall be interpreted and applied so as to substantially accomplish their objectives. All records and lists required by the Rules shall be in writing. The spirit and not the letter of each Rule shall be controlling. Substantial compliance with a Rule shall be sufficient."

The potential rule violation could open up the state party to legal challenges from Trump's opponents.

"This isn't North Korea. This isn't Russia. In America, a President shouldn't be able to just cancel elections," former Rep. Joe WalshJoe WalshMichigan GOP attempting to have Trump be only Republican candidate on ballot Weld files to run in GOP presidential primary in New Hampshire Mark Sanford exits GOP presidential primary MORE (R-Ill.), one of Trump's challengers, tweeted Saturday.

Trump's campaign has worked with several state Republican parties to stymie the possibility of a primary challenger in recent months, and to install pro-Trump leaders in state party roles.

Those efforts appear to be paying off for Trump, even at the expense of voters who would be overwhelmingly likely to support him in a primary. The Kansas Republican Party said Friday it would not hold caucuses next year, and at least two other state parties are considering ending their caucuses rather than opening Trump to a potential challenge.

The last several presidents who have faced primary challenges from within their own parties, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterDoes Trump have a bunch of 'losers' to thank for a growing economy? Jimmy Carter 'up and walking' after brain surgery The Hill's Morning Report - Diplomats kick off public evidence about Trump, Ukraine MORE, each lost their subsequent elections.