Is a local Republican endorsement still worth it for SC candidates? What primaries tell us

It’s relatively rare for county-level political parties to make endorsements in South Carolina primary elections — simply put, it’s risky for them and can create ill-will on the party if they support candidates who wind up losing in the partisan primaries.

But some South Carolina county-level Republican groups took the risk on endorsements in this month’s primaries, despite warnings from the state party that voicing primary support can make November elections more difficult. Could some parties now pay the price of supporting losing candidates?

Ahead of the state Senate District 23 nominating contest, the Lexington County Republican Party decided to weigh-in and endorse one of the three candidates: Zoe Warren, who wound up finishing third in the June 11 primary in his bid to oust state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.

Now, ahead of the June 25 runoff elections, the Lexington County GOP is backing the candidate who finished second in the primary: Carlisle Kennedy.

“Carlisle has made it clear that he will follow the platform of the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the incumbent’s record has been disappointing,” Lexington County GOP Chairman Mark Weber said.

The Lexington County GOP’s vocal support of Warren and now Kennedy was part of a slew of endorsements made by the county party.

It’s a rare and potentially risky move that can reduce relevancy if the party doesn’t endorse the ultimate primary winner and can leave some sour feelings going into the general election. The county and state parties coordinate efforts ahead of the November general elections to turn out voters among the party faithful for nominated candidates.

“If you don’t win everything you endorse, it’s just like when elected officials do endorsements, it’s the same risk: It can make you look less relevant if you don’t pick winners and can create hard feelings and make the general election process more difficult,” said Drew McKissick, chairman of the state GOP.

In 2023, the Lexington County GOP overhauled its leadership, which included a push from members who wanted to have more say and influence over local elections.

Ahead of the primary, the county party made endorsements in a total of 13 Republican races, including seven legislative races, five County Council races and the sheriff’s race. Ultimately, the party’s candidates won in six of the races it endorsed, and lost five. Two of its initial endorsed candidates are in runoffs.

Three out of five of the Lexington County GOP-endorsed candidates lost their County Council races. The party’s sheriff candidate, Billy Warren, lost as well.

In the seven legislative races the party endorsed in, four of its candidates won, one lost, and two are headed to runoffs, but finished first.

In Senate District 26, the Lexington County GOP backed Chris Smith, who was the top vote-getter on June 11 and advanced to a runoff against Jason Guerry.

Weber says the choice to make endorsements in the primary is warranted because Lexington County is a Republican stronghold and primaries elections are where most final election outcomes are effectively decided.

“We’re happy with what has transpired with the endorsements,” Weber said. “Endorsements are still meaningful.”

Lexington County GOP Chairman Mark Weber speaks at the party’s monthly meeting at the Flight Deck Restaurant in Lexington on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.
Lexington County GOP Chairman Mark Weber speaks at the party’s monthly meeting at the Flight Deck Restaurant in Lexington on Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

2 more county GOPs backed candidates in primary

The Lexington County party wasn’t alone in making endorsements in these primaries.

The Pickens County GOP backed Brandy Tarleton’s in an effort to oust state Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens. Tarleton lost.

The York County GOP backed three candidates for state House. Two of them lost.

In each of the state House races where the three county parties made endorsements, their candidates were either members of or aligned with the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus.

Back in Lexington County, the county party’s support for candidates challenging Shealy stems from her vote against the state’s six-week abortion ban. The party later censured Shealy for the vote last year.

In the June 11 primary, Shealy received 40% of the vote, short of the required simple majority needed to secure the nomination. Her closest competitor, Kennedy, won 36% of the vote.

But Shealy is getting outside help in her race, despite the county party gunning against her.

The South Carolina Senate Republican Caucus began running television ads Monday in support of Shealy’s reelection.

“Sen. Shealy has been an important part of the team that has allowed us to pass significant conservative issues over the last several years,” said Sen. Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “We would not have been able to pass those conservative issues without her, and she is one of the most effective senators in the body. I’m certainly supportive of her because I think she has been an important part of our team.

The S.C. Senate Republican Caucus is spending about $421,000 to help Shealy, state Sen. Billy Garrett, state Rep. Roger Nutt and state Rep. Jason Elliott in their runoff elections. The investments include $66,000 in support of Shealy’s campaign.

Massey said he would not attack Shealy and Garrett’s opponents.

“It is important that people understand both Sen. Shealy and Sen. Garrett have played important roles in some of the most significant conservative wins South Carolina has seen in decades, and those things would not have happened without them,” Massey said.

The Lexington County Republican party’s endorsements, which also included backing Garrett, came from its executive committee, who are made up of people who participate in party organization and tend to be activists.

Weber said the process included surveys and interviews of candidates to make sure candidates followed the party’s beliefs.

“Our job is to follow the Republican platform and elect Republicans that follow the platform,” Weber said.

The endorsements were selected by the 50-member executive committee who are elected from voting precincts.

“If they’re passionate, they show up to meetings. If they’re passionate they volunteer to get involved. If they’re committed, they show up to vote (on) everything,” Weber said. “Their voices are heard. Are they the louder voices in the room? Maybe, but they’re the most consistent voices in the room.”

Weber conceded that it is a concern that not all of the endorsed candidates would win, but he added the endorsements were not necessarily who the party thought would win the primary election. And he acknowledged the endorsements could strain a relationship with a candidate who won but wasn’t endorsed by the party.

“We’re going to work for the Republican who gets the most votes,” Weber said. “Does it make the relationship a little tense? Yeah.”