The lawsuit alleges that the party broke its own rules, which the state obliges them to follow. (“The complaint cites Rule 11(b)(1), which states that 'Unless decided otherwise by the state party convention within two years prior to each presidential election year, the ... party shall conduct a statewide presidential preference primary on a date selected by the chairman of the party . . . . When Republicans met for their state convention in March, they did not vote on holding a presidential primary.”)
The plaintiff are represented by a local law firm and by the nonpartisan Protect Democracy, which has litigated frequently in opposition to Trump’s executive power grabs. Cameron Kistler, counsel for Protect Democracy, put out a written statement, explaining:
"The Executive Committee’s decision to cancel the primary is both illegal and deeply un-American. We don’t cancel elections whenever one candidate is ahead of their rivals in the polls months ahead of an election. After all, if we did, Hillary Clinton—and not Donald Trump—would currently be President.”
The state party on Sept. 7 canceled the primary. This was before anything regarding the July 25 conversation between Trump and Ukraine’s president was released, before we had the benefit of the whistleblower complaint, before Trump’s secretary of state blocked witnesses from testifying and before Trump threatened the whistleblower. The House had not yet opened its official impeachment inquiry when the state party, perhaps at Trump’s behest, decided it was a good idea to deprive South Carolinians of the option to nominate someone else.
South Carolina Republicans might want to consider declining to oppose the lawsuit and reinstating the primary. Imagine if Trump is impeached and his approval rating is down in the 30s when the South Carolina primary rolls around on Feb. 29. By then, there might be Republican support in the House and/or Senate for replacing Trump. Nevertheless, South Carolina wouldn’t have a primary and therefore would have no role in deciding whether the party should dump the president, and if so, who should run in his place. Given that no other states except Nevada, Kansas, Arizona and Alaska have canceled their primaries, there could still be plenty of opportunity for a compelling candidate to jump into the race to save the party from ruin; South Carolina, however, would play no part in that contest.
It was never a good idea for the Republicans, in a convincing imitation of one-party authoritarian states, to insulate Trump from challengers. The move amounted to a primal scream of fear. If the incumbent has between 80 and 90 percent of the party in his corner, of course he is going to want to flaunt it through a series of primaries leading to an inevitable coronation. The only explanation for avoiding such ego-boosters is fear that credible opponents would appear and do damage to his facade of invincibility.
South Carolina’s Republican Party is now trapped. If it reverses and reinstates the primary, it will convey panic about Trump’s prospects. If it doesn’t, it will be left out of the primary process if Trump must be ousted to save the party.
If nothing else, the lawsuit should serve as a warning to other state parties: Keep your options open. Chaining the party’s prospects (not only for president but also for both houses of Congress) to a president floundering as much as this one is dangerous to one’s political health.