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What GOP infighting in South Carolina can (and can't) tell us about 2024

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump listen while he speaks during a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University on Feb. 10 in Conway, S.C.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Supporters of Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump listen while he speaks during a Get Out The Vote rally at Coastal Carolina University on Feb. 10 in Conway, S.C.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — If you want to learn more about Republican infighting influenced by former President Donald Trump, look to Horry County, S.C. But if you're looking to find the answer with the Horry County GOP, the first question you must ask is "Which one?"

Click the link to horrycountyrepublicanparty.org and you're greeted with a rippling American flag, a countdown to Saturday's GOP presidential primary and a list of early voting sites in the fast-growing conservative stronghold in the northeast corner of the state.

Choose horrycountyrepublicanparty.com, and a defiant elephant logo encircled by "The Independent Republic of Horry County" tops a page touting the next "Trump Tuesday" event, links to party leadership and, further down the page, a link to a site that aims to help "understand the battle for our party."

Both vocally claim to be the duly elected Republican county party for Horry (the "h" is silent) residents, both are led by unquestionably conservative chairmen and both represent a boiling point in the conflict that has come from Trump's quest to remake the GOP in his image.

But ahead of this weekend's primary — where Trump is expected to win over former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — and in a state that will comfortably vote Republican up and down the ballot in November, how much does this party politics squabble influence the 2024 presidential race?

First: the conflict.

'They are going through extraordinary lengths to silence us'

Roger Slagle — the onetime chair of the official Horry GOP and now leader of the copycat group — decried the South Carolina Republican Party and its leader, Drew McKissick, while speaking to the nearby York County GOP last year.

"I mean, what we have is we have a political machine in the state," he said. "And basically any real conservatives who want to have their voice heard, they are going through extraordinary lengths to silence all of us."

Slagle said in a state with a Republican governor and Republican legislature, South Carolina ranked in the bottom half of the country in passing conservative policies, and also had strong words for what he called the "shadow group" that is the officially recognized Horry GOP.

So why are there dueling Republican parties in the conservative stronghold of Horry County?

Long story short: Slagle was elected as head of the GOP in 2021, resigned in 2022 amidst turmoil under his tenure, then attempted to un-resign, but the state party recognized new leadership.

Slagle and others then formed a new group with essentially the same name, holding meetings, passing resolutions and acting as if they were the Horry County GOP. That led to a protracted legal battle, plenty of fighting on social media and a headache for Republicans trying to focus on building the party.

'It makes no sense'

Reese Boyd doesn't remember the exact issues that led to the mass resignation, but he knows what came next: He was elected new chairman of the county party in a special election.

An attorney in Myrtle Beach, Boyd is the officially recognized chair of the official Horry County GOP (and got a shout of from Trump at a rally in Conway earlier this month). He won a full term as chair at the last party convention in the spring of 2023.

Boyd doesn't understand the infighting and squabbling, considering everyone involved is very conservative, supports Trump and is working towards the same goal of electing more Republicans.

"I mean, they want to call everybody that they disagree with a RINO," he said, referring to the "Republican in name only" moniker thrown around at those deemed not conservative enough. "How they define that, I don't know. There's really — it makes no sense."

Most of the dueling GOP conflict exists in the confines of social media, out of sight and out of mind of all but a small few people, and Boyd said there's not really much attention paid to the other group outside of occasional events and media questions.

"I don't know how big of an impact it's having, it's more inside baseball," Boyd said. "I mean, the people who really follow the party dynamic and they follow party activities really closely, yeah, they're aware of it. But for the average voter, the average Republican on the street, I'm not sure really if it has much of an impact at all."

Indeed, a search through the Facebook group of the (unofficial) Horry Republicans has more mentions of President Biden and Republican officeholders than Boyd or anyone else in local party leadership.

The GOP family feud is a much broader phenomenon

Supporters look on as Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally Feb. 10 in Conway, S.C. As Trump has tried to remake the GOP in his image, local parties have resorted to infighting.
Meg Kinnard / AP
Supporters look on as Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally Feb. 10 in Conway, S.C. As Trump has tried to remake the GOP in his image, local parties have resorted to infighting.

Infighting is not confined to the "independent republic" on the coast — similar rifts in South Carolina's Lexington and Greenville counties have played out in the last few years as enthusiastic grassroots Trump supporters have stepped into party positions at the precinct, county, district and state levels.

James Wallner, a Clemson University political science professor and fellow at the R Street Institute, is not surprised.

"I think what you're really seeing is that people who were not necessarily as engaged in the past are now more engaged in our politics," he explained. "You're seeing more people getting involved in politics within the Republican Party and they're trying to achieve their goals in this system — and they're being met with a very fierce resistance in many respects."

Wallner says the angst among Palmetto State Republicans boils down to these new participants questioning the status quo of how things are — or aren't — done, like Slagle's mention of South Carolina's low conservative ranking despite Republican control of the legislature.

"It makes sense if you're the status quo to try to de-legitimize the reasons why people are upset with you or the reasons why your opponents are getting involved in politics and trying to wrest power from you," Wallner said. "But too often what we see, I think, is that the status quo will often try to belittle and to delegitimize people instead of engaging them on the issues."

New year, same identity crisis

Danielle Vinson, professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University, said what's happening in Horry County and in South Carolina is reflective of a larger question the Republican Party has grappled with since the Tea Party days before Trump.

"You have a bunch of people in the Republican Party that are conservative when it comes to policy, But the questions get down to 'Who's going to fight the hardest and what does fighting for what we believe in actually look like?'" she said. "That's where you really begin to see the divisions within the party, and so, yes, absolutely, I think we're going to continue to see these divisions."

Vinson also points out in many cases, the pro-Trump figures that have taken on new positions lack experience and familiarity with basic functions the party has historically filled, from fundraising to get out the vote efforts.

Still, two groups claiming to be the GOP in Horry County South Carolina will not suddenly put the state in play for Biden or down-ballot Democrats, nor is it a sign of an unhealthy state party that has grown its ranks in recent years.

But the greater conflict over how the Republican Party operates and who will fill its ranks of leadership is playing out with high rancor and higher stakes in crucial swing states like Arizona, Georgia and Michigan — not to mention the Republican National Committee itself — and could have the potential to hurt them in the presidential election this November.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Fowler
Stephen Fowler is a political reporter with NPR's Washington Desk and will be covering the 2024 election based in the South. Before joining NPR, he spent more than seven years at Georgia Public Broadcasting as its political reporter and host of the Battleground: Ballot Box podcast, which covered voting rights and legal fallout from the 2020 presidential election, the evolution of the Republican Party and other changes driving Georgia's growing prominence in American politics. His reporting has appeared everywhere from the Center for Public Integrity and the Columbia Journalism Review to the PBS NewsHour and ProPublica.