Who represents South Carolina at the quadrennial GOP national convention usually isn’t of interest to anyone besides Republican party activists. But as with so many other things about this election, 2016 is different.
With the possibility of the first contested convention in decades, which presidential candidate a local Republican delegate will ultimately cast his or her vote for is of great interest to those inside and outside the party.
“Delegates matter more now than in any election I can recall in my lifetime,” said Joel Hamilton, chairman of the York County Republican Party.
On Thursday, Rock Hill hosts the GOP convention for the Fifth Congressional District, where 126 delegates from across the district’s 11 counties will meet to elect three of the state’s 50 delegates to this summer’s national convention in Cleveland. The convention will be held at 7 p.m. at the Rock Hill Holiday Inn on Galleria Boulevard.
Those delegates, like all of South Carolina’s delegation, will be pledged to vote for Donald Trump, the winner of both the district and statewide primary votes last February – but only on the convention’s first ballot. If none of the presidential contenders win a majority of votes on the first try, the convention will hold a second ballot where South Carolina and most other delegates will be free to vote for whomever they wish.
23 candidates are running for 3 national delegate slots from SC’s 5th District – and they don’t have to vote Trump after the first ballot.
That leaves open the possibility of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, nationally the closest competitor to Trump, picking up delegates otherwise pledged to support the New York real estate tycoon. Cruz supporters have snagged seats at some other district-level conventions held in South Carolina this month.
Shery Smith is running for one of the fifth district’s delegate slots. The chair of the Sumter County GOP, she was a field organizer for Cruz’s campaign in February.
“The rules are clear. Delegates are bound to Trump on the first ballot, so I will vote for him on the first ballot,” Smith said. “But on the second ballot, I am a Cruz supporter.”
Smith argues that, although Trump came in first statewide and in each congressional district on Feb. 20, he did so with only a third of the vote.
“A lot of (delegate) candidates are in that 60-odd percent that voted for somebody else,” she said, “and a delegate has to represent the entire state.”
Trump may also be vulnerable because of how voting delegates were selected. Delegates to this year’s district and state conventions were chosen at county Republican conventions held in 2015, months before the primary and perhaps without a lot of committed Trump supporters in the mix.
Delegates matter more now than in any election I can recall in my lifetime.
Joel Hamilton, York Co. GOP chair
But Hamilton, the York County chairman, thinks his county’s large delegation will be representative of Republican voters overall.
“I imagine you’ll see a similar cross-section as you saw in the primary,” he said, but he adds, “There’s a more organized effort by Cruz, and I think that’s true on a national level, too.”
Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, shut down its South Carolina operations after the primary and doesn’t seem to have an equivalent push to ensure the state’s delegates are loyal Trump supporters. It wasn’t until late March, once it became clear a contested convention was a real possibility, that the Trump camp named veteran GOP operative Paul Manafort as its national convention manager.
Thursday’s delegates will double as delegates to the Republican state convention in Columbia on May 7, which will elect half the state’s delegation – the other half being chosen by congressional district.
York County has a total of 80 delegates at Thursday’s convention, each of which will cast half a vote. Lancaster County has the second largest delegation at 15, and Chester has seven. After hearing from each of the candidates for a national slot, each delegate will vote for his or her favorite, with the top three vote-getters earning a seat in Cleveland.
The three with the next highest vote totals will be named as alternates to the convention – but those alternates could still be elected full delegates at the state GOP convention a week later, which would open an alternate spot to another runner-up at Thursday’s gathering.
The 126 voters at Thursday’s convention were chosen by county conventions last year, well before February’s GOP primary.
“They will each have a minute-and-a-half spiel, where they can say ‘I’m not for Trump,’ or ‘I’ll always be for Trump,’” said Brandon Newton, chairman of the fifth district GOP. “I’m sure some will say they’re open-minded.”
Who ends up a delegate could depend on whether the county delegates vote collectively or if there’s any coalition building on the floor, Newton said. It could also depend simply on who shows up on a weeknight. Newton said the party chose Thursday to coincide with the regular meetings of the bigger York and Lancaster parties, which otherwise meet on Thursdays.
Despite the often acrimonious GOP primary process this year, local party leaders hope the excitement around this year’s delegate selection process can get Republicans activated and educate them about the delegate process.
“It’s shone some light on how little people know about how the process works, in both parties,” Smith said. “People just don’t understand a process that’s been in place now for about 150 years. But now, they’re paying attention.”
Hamilton hopes the engagement of the process – and hopefully, an acceptance of its validity – will keep the general public engaged with the party going forward. (He notes Thursday’s convention is open to the public).
“There’s a whole lot more interest, because now it’s more than symbolic” to be named a delegate, he said. “The role of a delegate is now a much larger role.”