With South Carolina in the heart of the primary season, Lexington County political figures spoke to the Chronicle about the state of their parties going into an election year.
With South Carolina in the heart of the primary season, Lexington County political figures spoke to the Chronicle about the state of their parties going into an election year that won’t just decide who will be in the White House for the next four years, but will also see every seat in the state Senate and House of Representatives on the ballot.
With the state’s Democratic presidential primary having just past, and the Republican primary fast approaching on Feb. 24, we got perspective on the county’s political atmosphere from the Lexington County Democratic Party, the S.C. Freedom Caucus and two members of the county’s legislative delegation, Rep. Micah Caskey (R-Lexington) and Rep. Russell Ott (D-Calhoun).
The Chronicle didn’t receive a response from Mark Weber, newly elected chair of the Lexington County Republican Party, which had been consumed by infighting through early this year.
Starting in August of last year, the party separated into dueling factions, one led by Weber and other led by now-former chair Pamela Godwin. Godwin, formally removed by the state GOP’s executive committee in December, continues to publicly claim that she owns the title of chair.
Her removal signaled the end of a months-long schism during which the county GOP’s separate factions each operated its own website and social media accounts.
The party formally turned the page when it elected Weber chair on Jan. 15.
“My role as chair is to help herd all these cats together and try to get us going in the right direction and a common direction,” Weber said at that meeting. “So I appreciate your faith in me.”
Caskey told the Chronicle that he doesn’t have a reason to question the state of the Republican Party, claiming that with the large representation of Republicans within the state government, the party is strong.
Ott, whose district includes a portion of Lexington County, claimed that the state of the Republican Party in the state is not good right now.
“There's not as much Republican or Democrat fighting, as you would think,” Ott said. “I mean, the vast majority of fighting is Republican on Republican.”
He added with Republicans having such a large supermajority within the state it has become a fight over who is going to control that caucus, telling the Chronicle that it is unfortunate for the state’s citizens.
“We had one Republican telling another Republican to shut up on the floor of the house,” he claimed. “So it's just getting nasty, but it's not really Republican against Democrat or Democratic against Republican it’s certainly more Republican against Republican.”
Democrats seem to be in good spirits going into this year, with Joe Madge, 1st Vice Chair of the Lexington County Democratic Party, telling the Chronicle that his group was excited for the first-in-the-nation Democratic primary, adding that even though the party had only three candidates on the ballot that it was their sole focus.
Ott shared a similar sentiment, stating that he finds it fantastic that each county has their own individual party. Like Madge, Ott told the Chronicle that there was excitement throughout the party for the primary.
“I'm proud of my caucus, I'm proud of the House of Democratic Caucus,” he said. “We have been fighting very hard on issues that matter to our constituents.”
Both Madge and Ott touched on getting voters motivated to participate and go to the polls, with Madge claiming that with primaries through June and the general election in November, they break up the months so that they can ensure a lot of their activity goes to those elections.
Caskey also touched on this, saying that the Republican Party as an organization starts to mobilize to get people out to support candidates when they enter an election year. He added that challenges include getting out and talking to people and attending events, as there are a lot and you can’t be in multiple places at once.
Madge said one of the main goals his party has is to increase their reach with residents to try and increase the turnout for Democratic candidates, with hopes of electing more Democrats.
“We've got a couple of seats that We’re focusing on, recruiting candidates. Trying to flip some seats in the State House is kind of our focus this year,” he said. “And obviously elect a Democratic for president in the national election”
Without diving too much into their political strategy, Madge told the Chronicle that during election years the focus is on voter engagement and turnout, and during non-election years, the focus is on growing the party and staying focused on voter registration. He added that voter registration activities are a very resource intensive focus.
Madge said the biggest challenge during an election year is “letting folks know that there is an active Democratic Party” within the county, adding that the party is focused on helping all people and trying to do things better for everybody.
“I think we have a lot of folks who they self-identify as conservative and then, ‘OK, therefore, I'm a Republican,’ but they don't really look at the things that the Republican Party stands for and policies that the republican party puts in place,” he said. “But if you talk to people about specific Democratic party policies, they’re actually in agreement with a lot of them.”
“The main thing is, is really how you persuade those folks to vote for the Democratic Party,” he added.
He said that being a Democratic Party within a predominantly Republican county has its challenges, telling the Chronicle that he will hear, “Wow, thought I was the only one in the county,” frequently when talking with other local Democrats.
Madge added that there are tens of thousands of Democrats in Lexington County, but they are just outnumbered. He added that neighboring the predominantly Democratic Richland County is helpful, adding that they have partnered with the Richland County Democratic Party in the past.
He claimed that Lexington County precinctsin Cayce, West Columbia and Irmo, which neighbor Richland County, have started to become more and more democratic.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum sits the South Carolina Freedom Caucus, for which Rep. R.J. May (R-Lexington) serves as vice-chair. He posited that the intensely conservative caucus is strong.
The caucus has received a mix of reactions from fellow Republicans due to their far right ideologies.
“We feel comfortable going into 2024 that we will not only defend the seats we have but grow our membership,” May said.
He told the Chronicle that regardless of it being an election year, the caucus’ legislative goals remain the same, adding that they will continue to work on judicial reform, securing parental rights, abandoning rank choice voting and getting closed primaries.
While their goals remain the same, there is one thing they hope to gain, May said: more seats in the chamber. He explained that in the upcoming year the caucus hopes to expand its membership in a significant way.
He claimed that Democrats and “liberal Republicans” have put a bounty on caucus members' heads, adding that these groups are offering upwards of $50,000 to candidates to run against Caucus members.
When asked about this, Madge said it’s not something the Democratic Party does, adding that they do try to have a Democrat running for every partisan seat as they don’t want to leave the seats uncontested. Ott echoed this rebuttal, saying that there are no Democrats offering money to people to run against Freedom Caucus members.
Caskey offered a similar sentiment to Madge, telling the Chronicle that he has not seen any indication of this happening.
“The Freedom Caucus is the least trustworthy source for information that I can think of,” Caskey said. “But the Freedom Caucus has proven itself to be a group that that will say anything they can to try and get attention”
May claimed that the people of South Carolina will realize the need to send real conservative fighters who will “drain the Columbia swamp and take on the Columbia cartel or they'll have an internal alternative choice of someone who will go to Columbia and do the bidding of their lobbyist overlords.”
When it comes to challenges that present themselves during an election year, May touched on those who are up for re-election, stating that they often have to be in Columbia for three days, making it hard to connect with their constituents face to face.
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