SC lawmakers boast State House is not like DC. Outgoing incumbents fear that’s changing

·6 min read

Republicans departing the South Carolina House say they fear the lower chamber’s politics and intraparty problems are starting to mirror Congress, where, lawmakers say, ideologies are trumping policy.

Many House Republicans are still reeling from the June 14 primaries when three Upstate Republicans lost their seats to challengers in what has been described as an aggressive and well-funded campaign this year to oust incumbents, in particular sitting legislators who are deemed by, in some cases, their colleagues as not conservative enough.

And a brewing feud has emerged in the House GOP Caucus over some Republican legislators, one in particular, who tried to oust their own colleagues through tactics lawmakers and observers contend were meant to empower and grow a new conservative caucus amid chamber turnover.

Six House Republicans lost their primaries, and a handful of others nearly lost their seats to challengers further to the right. Thirteen legislators, including the former House speaker and majority leader, did not run for reelection.

At least one Democrat — state Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland — will not return to the Legislature next year after she fell short 115 votes to Richland County Rep. Jermaine Johnson, whose district was merged with Brawley’s this year because of redistricting. Democratic state Reps. Roger Kirby and Cezar McKnight will face off in a June 28 runoff after neither exceeded the 50% threshold in their race to represent the new Pee Dee-area district.

“I have a lot of concerns about this Washington-style politics and mentality and dark money and groups coming into this state,” said Anderson Republican Rep. Brian White, the former chairman of the powerful budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee who lost his primary to businesswoman April Cromer. “South Carolina’s great because we work with each other, we go across the aisle to Democrats, we make compromises because we do what’s in the best interest of the state.”

White lost by 829 votes to Cromer, 44, who ran on fiscal responsibility and expanding gun rights.

“I’m just so happy for Anderson County,” said Cromer, who term limited herself to no more than eight years. “I’m just excited to get to work and take (a) true conservative in Anderson to Columbia.”

Another Anderson Republican, state Rep. West Cox, lost his race to newcomer Thomas Beach, who said in past campaign emails that he decided to challenge Cox in the primary over the transgender athlete ban, now law.

Arguably the biggest surprise of primary night was state Rep. Rita Allison, the longtime chairwoman of the House’s education committee, who lost to Robert Harris, a 57-year-old operating room nurse, by 207 votes. Harris told The State he wants to abolish abortion, expand gun rights, do more to secure elections and arm teachers in schools.

Allison did not return repeated requests for comment.

Cox, like other legislators, told The State there were several obstacles that confronted incumbents this year.

Primary turnout in South Carolina historically is low. This year was no different: 17% of the state’s more than 3 million registered voters cast ballots.

And incumbents were confronted with a growing nationalized sentiment from voters, making it harder for lawmakers, they said, to talk about issues they considered more impactful from elections to tax cuts and education spending. Some said they even struggled to address legislation the House passed that might appeal to primary voters, like the transgender athlete ban and an effort to address teaching critical race theory in schools.

The latter took up hours and multiple days of testimony in Allison’s committee. Greenwood Republican Rep. John McCravy, chairman of the chamber’s conservative Family Caucus, told reporters this month that Allison “probably neglected her own campaign to do that,” calling it a “selfless thing that she did for the state.”

“I wanted to talk about tax cuts, what we had done for education, (putting money in) reserves. On Wednesday morning (the day after the primary), I went back to Columbia, and voted on the biggest tax cut and a budget that sent $700,000 back to District 10,” Cox said. “All of those things are great things that are going to help South Carolina, but we didn’t get to talk about that during the campaign.”

South Carolina Rep. RJ May, R-Lexington, center, speaks Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the State House in Columbia, S.C., about 2022 priorities.
South Carolina Rep. RJ May, R-Lexington, center, speaks Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the State House in Columbia, S.C., about 2022 priorities.

House GOP feud simmers over lawmaker’s primary work

State Rep. RJ May, a Lexington County Republican, said legislators should think of primary night this way: A “repudiation of the good ol’ boys system” in state politics and a sign voters are tired of lawmakers failing on their campaign promises.

Ever since his 2020 election — a year in which Republicans recorded major success, flipping five seats in the Legislature — May has emerged as one of the chamber’s more conservative voices. He recently helped launch the General Assembly’s first House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative legislators whose goals include slashing government spending.

But in the last few weeks, May, the former director of the S.C. Club for Growth who runs a political consulting firm, has found himself the target of his colleagues’ and party leadership’s ire after his firm was hired to run the campaign of a candidate seeking to unseat one of May’s colleagues, Spartanburg Rep. Travis Moore.

May’s firm was paid some $41,000 pre-election filings show to do consulting work on behalf of William DeVore, a Spartanburg anesthesiologist who launched an aggressive campaign to unseat Moore, an attorney and chairman of the Freshman Caucus. Another colleague of Moore’s, Lexington Rep. Ryan McCabe, recorded a robocall on behalf of DeVore.

DeVore lost by fewer than 300 votes.

Campaign filings show May’s firm also was hired to consult the campaign of Republican Jay Kilmartin, the winner of a four-way GOP primary race to fill the House District 85 seat, left open by retiring Rep. Chip Huggins.

“Disheartening. I learned firsthand that some of the members I serve with have less loyalty and less integrity than most of the other members I serve with,” Moore said. “But I just have to be mindful of that going forward, and continue to focus on the issues important to this state and district obviously. I think it’s clear a lot of people know about this and these type of issues will be addressed internally.”

That sentiment was echoed by the chamber’s new House Majority Leader Davey Hiott, R-Pickens, who called the practice of a sitting legislator using his political strategy firm to oust a colleague “unacceptable” and said the caucus will address its concerns.

May’s work is likely to be the focus of a rule change within the caucus later this year — what May called a “political witch hunt.”

“This idea that every member of the caucus has to support every member of the caucus is bananas,” May said.

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