Three-term South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick was narrowly reelected on the first ballot this past Saturday to serve a fourth term at the helm of a party experiencing great division.
The party's bi-annual convention was held in the gymnasium of River Bluff High School in Lexington. Over 1,000 delegates and alternates from across the state filled the huge gym. Delegates and alternates had already been chosen at the various county GOP conventions, which were held in the several weeks prior to Saturday's convention.
The attendees were given an hour and a half during which to check in. A few minutes before the commencement of the meeting, some alternates gathered at their county check-in tables to find out if they would be promoted to delegate status. If a person selected to serve as a delegate does not show up at the beginning of the convention, an alternate gets to take his or her place.
Right after McKissick gaveled the convention to order he placed the name of 28 year-old Representative Brandon Newton to serve as convention president. He did not take other names from the floor and immediately asked for a show of green cards (which were provided in the delegate packets) to approve Newton. He then asked for a show of red cards for those who did not approve of Newton.
To observers in the back it appeared as if the reds were in the majority. Nate Leupp, a past chairman of the Greenville GOP, said later that he had been standing toward the front and, to him, it looked as if the greens had prevailed. He also opined that the greens had won, evidenced by the fact that McKissick later won the chairmanship.
Curiously, the counties in which the greens predominated were clustered to the front and the counties in which the reds were prominent and which disapproved of McKissick's hand-picked convention president were clustered in the back of the room. Was this by design? In past conventions, Greenville, probably more conservative than most other counties in the Palmetto State, has often been placed in the back of the room.
After Newton took the podium, a speaker from the floor challenged the ruling. Newton then allowed a second vote to appeal the first ruling. He asked for a showing of green cards to support the first ruling versus a showing of red cards to appeal the ruling. Despite the appearance from the back of the room that both sides were roughly evenly divided, Newton immediately declared the greens to have won again, to loud disapproval from the back.
Newton said, “Once the vote is called, the vote is called.” He said that an appeal has to be made before the vote is called.
One delegate yelled out, “You don't give time for someone to contest it!”
Yvonne Julian, the newly-elected chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party, later said, “I think people are actually going to be more motivated because I think there's a lot of concern about the way the initial voice vote went.”
At one point, Newton, trying to silence the roars of disapproval, told the crowd that the sergeant of arms had the authority to deputize anyone whom he saw fit to restore order if needed. No action was taken.
The main business of the convention was the election of a new chairman. Before that vote, the audience heard from presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy.
Ramaswamy, an entrepreneur who has never held public office and who thus has no voting record, threw out a lot of red meat conservative talking points to the GOP crowd, such as ending race-based affirmative action, eliminating the federal Department of Education and not allowing Chinese purchases of land in America.
Having observed the initial discord, Ramaswamy said, “I know I'm walking into a room here where there are deep-seated divisions and debates within our party. I think it's a good thing. . . iron sharpens iron.”
He added that there is too much obsession on the who and that the focus needs to be placed on the what and the why. “Today is our moment to figure out who we are, what we are standing for as a party, as Republicans, as conservatives, as Americans. Why do we stand for these things?” he asked.
Ramaswamy was the only presidential candidate who showed up to speak to the Republican activists. Neither former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley nor Tim Scott, the state's junior senator, both of whom are running for president as well, made an appearance at their own state's convention, although the Scott campaign provided a very brief video. No doubt they had more important business to attend to than to speak to their fellow South Carolinians.
The Ron DeSantis campaign also provided a brief video, as did former president Donald Trump, who praised McKissick.
Governor Henry McMaster then made a few remarks. He praised the rise of Republicanism in the state from basically non-existent in the early 1960's to the super majority that the party holds today. He also acknowledged McKissick. “When your team is winning you don't fire the coach,” he said to loud applause.
After the speeches, votes were held to make the temporary officers, the temporary agenda and the temporary standing rules all permanent. All three votes were voice votes of seemingly equal volume. All three times Newton ruled that the ayes had it.
All three of these votes were met with disapproval from the back of the room. All of these votes and decisions provided a powerful illustration as to the power held in the hands of a convention president.
Jeff Davis, the recent chairman of the Greenville County Republican Party and the county's new state executive committeeman, minced no words in his three-minute speech attempting to woo delegates to vote for him to be the next state chairman.
“What you're seeing here is what's destroying this party. It is not the new people destroying this party, it is not we the people, it's the establishment that's pushing us out, that's not letting us speak, and we're going to come back in droves,” said Davis, adding, “We do not have an apathy problem, as Drew McKissick says, we have an establishment problem.”
Davis' hashtag for several months has been '#fireDREW.' Several delegates in the Greenville County delegation, the largest delegation in the state, wore stickers supporting Davis for chairman, One man in the back row wore his sticker on the back of his bald head.
McKissick, in his campaign speech, said, “The bottom line is, you can't govern if you don't win. . .Here in South Carolina we know how to win. . . We've elected more members to the legislature than anytime since Sherman was in town.”
About a half dozen members of the Greenville delegation stood with their backs turned to McKissick in protest while he spoke.
Another candidate, Denny Floyd of Anderson County, spoke and then withdrew from the race, admonishing the crowd, to loud applause, “I'm asking you, vote for somebody other than Drew, anybody but Drew!”
Zoe Warren and Tim Cox also put their hats in the ring.
McKissick won the race, receiving 485 votes. Davis won 309 votes, Warren had support from 123 delegates and Cox received 10. McKissick won a majority in the first round, receiving 51.85% of the votes, narrowly avoiding a runoff.
However, McKissick's win this time was much narrower then his previous win in the 2021 virtual convention, when he ran against Lin Wood.
Davis won a handful of counties – Barnwell, Charleston, Colleton, Dorchester, Greenville, Lexington, Pickens and York. Warren won Anderson. McKissick won the rest of the Palmetto State's 46 counties. Davis' biggest victory was Greenville, winning 75 of the 88 votes cast. McKissick received no votes from Greenville.
After the conclusion of the chairman's race, several other offices were voted on as well – first vice-chair, second vice-chair and third vice-chair. The incumbents, Cindy Risher, Kizzie Smalls and Leighton Gray Smith, all won their races. The America First slate of candidates, Olga Blandford for first vice-chair and Lanneau Siegling for second vice-chair, was soundly defeated.
Julian, who had supported Davis, remained upbeat. “I'm really pleased at the effort that the America First movement made at this convention. If you look at our success in this one compared to two years ago, I think we made some significant progress. For us we had nothing to lose today. For us it's really about staying the course,” said Julian, adding, “I think it was a great showing. I'm not at all discouraged.”
Julian also said that the 'establishment' acted the way that she had expected. “They are what they are, they do what they do, so you've just got to play the cards you're dealt,” she said.