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Analysis: The GOP Civil War Continues Without Even a Pause

Battle for Trey Gowdy’s open seat in South Carolina a bitter affair

The battle for the open seat of retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has laid bare the ongoing GOP civil war. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The battle for the open seat of retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has laid bare the ongoing GOP civil war. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

While many dissected Corey Stewart’s recent Virginia Republican Senate primary victory and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford’s defeat in his bid for renomination, an even more interesting runoff race is underway in the Palmetto State.

The June 12 Republican primary in Trey Gowdy’s open 4th District seat produced a runoff pitting first-place finisher Lee Bright, a former state senator, against William Timmons, a first-term state senator.

When I saw Bright’s name, I laughed. You see, I still remember my interview with him when he was running to deny GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham renomination.

Here is what I wrote about Bright after that interview: “Bright, whose professional career started with selling televisions at Circuit City, has experienced a series of business setbacks. In fact, I’m not entirely clear how he makes a living, though he said something about truck brokerage and credit card processing. He seems affable, but he lacks gravitas.

“The state senator describes himself as a member of the tea party and he endorsed first Michele Bachmann, then Ron Paul in the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. He readily acknowledges that he rarely supports bills brought up for a vote on the floor of the South Carolina Senate.”

Bright came off then as an unadulterated bomb-thrower who cared more about attacking those in his party and making trouble than about passing legislation, and he doesn’t appear to have changed his stripes.

In a statement in March announcing his candidacy for Gowdy’s open seat, Bright said, “South Carolina voters are sick and tired of radical Leftists and establishment Republicans constantly eroding our rights.”

Bright, 48, put together an interesting record in the Legislature. He supported efforts to create a separate state currency and to nullify federal laws. He supported a bill to force transgender people to use public bathrooms matching their sex assigned at birth, and he was one of three South Carolina senators voting in 2015 against removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds. 

According to Jamie Self of The State newspaper, Bright also “pushed an unsuccessful proposal to allow the carrying of firearms without training or a permit” and “filibustered a landmark abortion ban that passed — despite opposing abortion himself — because it included exceptions for rape and incest.”

Just a quick reminder here: Bright finished first in the primary, garnering about a quarter of the vote in a field of 13 Republican hopefuls.

Bright’s opponent in the June 26 runoff, William Timmons, is a young (34) first-term state senator. Post and Courier reporter Jamie Lovegrove wrote that Timmons “stems from a dynasty of wealthy, politically active Greenville Republicans.” Timmons has raised more than $1 million, including hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money that he put into his primary campaign.

Timmons doesn’t have a long record, so it’s hard to see exactly how he fits into the party. But insiders see Timmons as a business-friendly conservative from a prominent, well-connected family. In other words, unlike Bright, Timmons is no bomb-thrower.

During the primary, the Club for Growth ran a radio ad attacking Timmons and third-place finisher state Rep. Dan Hamilton for allegedly not being sufficiently supportive of President Donald Trump.

In some ways, the contrast between the two Republicans in the runoff could not be clearer.

Timmons has an undergraduate degree from George Washington University in the nation’s capital and a law degree (and a master’s degree in international studies) from the University of South Carolina. Bright graduated from Dorman High School.

Timmons has been endorsed by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Bright has been endorsed by Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

Finally, Timmons knocked off longtime state Sen. Mike Fair in the 2016 GOP runoff at the same time that Bright was losing his bid for a third term to attorney Scott Talley, who was endorsed by then-governor Nikki Haley and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce.

Local observers believe the Bright-Timmons contest will be another fight between insiders and outsiders.

“This is a mainstream Republican — call it the establishment, if you’d like — versus a guy who is as extreme as [Virginia Republican Senate nominee] Corey Stewart,” said longtime South Carolina Republican consultant Chip Felkel, who expects the local business community to make “a very focused effort to support Timmons in the June 26 runoff.”

However, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has no plans to get involved in the runoff, especially since during a debate of GOP hopefuls, none of the candidates said he would seek the group’s endorsement.

The South Carolina 4th District runoff is another test of how far the GOP has moved from the political center and how strong the Freedom Caucus will be in the next Congress. It merits your attention.

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