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Will South Carolina Democrats skip their own primary to vote against Trump later?

A South Carolina Democratic consultant is urging Democrats to vote for Haley in the South Carolina Republican primary.
Gage Skidmore
CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
A South Carolina Democratic consultant is urging South Carolina Democrats to skip their own primary Saturday so they can vote for Nikki Haley in the GOP primary on Feb. 24.

Donald Sparks of Charleston has impeccable Democratic Party credentials. He’s been a campaign consultant for Democrats, and he worked for the late South Carolina Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings.

Last week he wrote an op-edin the Charleston Post and Courier. It had an unusual plea.

“I’ve decided and I’ve urged my friends who are Democrats to vote for Nikki Haley in the South Carolina Republican primary but with a big caveat,” Sparks said about his op-ed. “Be sure to vote for Joe Biden in the general.”

In the New Hampshire primary last month, Haley lost to Trump by only 11%. Her campaign was boosted by unaffiliated voters, who were allowed to participate in the GOP primary.

In South Carolina, that same dynamic is at play, even more so — on paper at least.

Since South Carolina voters don’t register by party, people can vote in whichever primary they want. That means lifelong Democrats can vote in the GOP primary on Feb. 24, so long as they don’t vote in the Democratic primary on Saturday.

Sparks said he’s never made a strategic choice to vote in the Republican primary before.

“I really sort of despise myself for having to do this because I’ve never been a tactical voter — I just think you vote for who you want,” Sparks said. “But in this case, the stakes are so high. We’ve never had the sort of upside-down politics we’ve had for the last eight years.”

To Sparks, those stakes are the future of the nation’s democracy.

“The danger is so great that I’m willing to take that bet on a Haley-Biden lineup,” he said. “Let the voters decide. But at least democracy won’t be at stake.”

The national Democratic Party made South Carolina its first official primary this year, in part because it’s a diverse state that saved Biden’s campaign four years ago. Biden won the New Hampshire primary due to write-in votes.

Colleen Condon, the first vice chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said she’s hearing chatter about Democrats skipping Saturday’s primary and waiting to vote for Haley.

She doesn't like that idea.

“I’ve had people who are so terrified of the idea (of Trump winning in November) that (they say) ‘I’ve got to vote for Nikki Haley,’ Condon said. “I will admit I’m having that conversation on a daily basis with friends who I know are Democrats and explaining to them the reason why they need to vote in our primary.”

She thinks their votes would be best used to give Biden an overwhelming win on Saturday, building momentum for November. That would create a narrative that the Democratic Party is solidly behind the president, she said.

In an interview, Condon was asked about Biden’s claims that Trump is an existential threat to democracy. She did not address that question directly — but only said that Haley is not someone that Democrats should support, even in a primary. Condon noted that, as a gay woman, she had to sue the state in 2014 — when Haley was governor — for the right to marry.

“The reality is, Nikki Haley is not a moderate,” she said. “She may look like one (compared) to Donald Trump, but she is not.”

There may be some Democrats who decide to strategically cast a vote for Haley. But WFAE spoke to several Democrats in Rock Hill, and many had no idea they could even vote in the GOP primary.

And some Democrats who knew it was an option said “no way.”

Terry Gaar, who recently moved to Rock Hill from Charlotte, is one of those voters. She’s heard high-level talk about Democrats crossing over, but “I haven’t heard it among my friends or anybody else. I know there are people who are very concerned and dissatisfied with the current candidates but I haven’t heard anything like that, I haven’t heard anyone say we’re going to undermine this.”

Sparks said he doesn’t think there’s any chance Haley can win South Carolina in three weeks, with most polls showing Trump with at least 60% of the vote. He just wants enough moderate Democrats to support her so she reaches 30%, a level of support that he believes will allow her to stay in the race.

He said the longer Haley can challenge Trump, the more likely there could be an election-changing event, such as the ex-president being found guilty in any of the four criminal cases against him. He also said some moderate Republicans might decide he can’t win in November, and then back Haley.

But to some Republicans, like Robin Beaver, who runs an antique store in Rock Hill, the idea of Democrats jumping in the GOP primary is nefarious.

“What they are trying to do is divide us as conservatives,” she said. “And that’s typical for Democrats, they play hardball, they play long ball. They play hardball. Republicans need to start doing that maybe.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.