For South Carolina Democrats, the presidential primary this weekend is a crucial step in the race to pick a nominee to face off against President Trump in November.
For the state’s G.O.P., there is no nominating contest. But that will not stop some Republicans from casting ballots anyway.
Conservative activists said on Tuesday they are taking advantage of South Carolina’s open primary system and are encouraging Republicans — if they can stomach it, backers added — to vote in the Democratic primary. Multiple organized efforts are underway, with one going so far as to quote-unquote endorse Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who state polls show is closely trailing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“We’d like to have a hand in helping the President by giving him an avowed socialist to face in November!” the organizers of one of the groups, Trump 2-29, a reference to the date of Saturday’s primary, wrote on its Facebook page. “Haven’t you waited a VERY long time to DO SOMETHING for President Trump??? Here ya go.”
The organizers conceded that they relished the chance to roil Democrats, especially during a moment in the campaign when friction between the party’s candidates has become especially acute.
But they said they were motivated by a larger mission: For years, conservative activists have sought to close South Carolina’s open primaries, and this election offered ideal circumstances for creating a live demonstration of the flaws they see in the system.
“We were also looking for a way to get Democrats to support the cause of closing the primary,” said Christopher Sullivan, a longtime critic of the open primary and leader of the Conservative Defense Fund, a small advocacy outfit in South Carolina. “And this is a way of showing them what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Charges of “party raiding,” as the tactic is known, have been leveled repeatedly over the years from both parties, in presidential races as well as down-ballot statewide legislative contests. Still, experts said, evidence of these efforts achieving any sort of significant influence is hard to find.
Organizers acknowledged on Tuesday that it was impossible to tell whether this go-round would be any different. “We’re just three volunteers with a Facebook page,” said Karen Martin, an organizer of the Trump 2-29 group. “It’s hard to gauge the impact other than anecdotally.”
Even so, one Democratic lawmaker has proposed legislation meant to curtail party raiding.
Standing on the floor of the State Senate this month, Marlon E. Kimpson, a Democrat from Charleston who has endorsed Mr. Biden, read from an article published by The Post and Courier, the newspaper in Charleston, S.C., that described a scheme by “a group of prominent Upstate Republicans” to help Mr. Sanders in the primary.
“I want to send a message to all Republicans seeking to interfere with the Democratic presidential primary,” Mr. Kimpson said as he introduced legislation that would force those who cast ballots in this year’s presidential primary to do so again for the same party in four years. “If you vote in the Democratic primary, you’re stuck with the Democratic Party until the next presidential election. You’ll be with us for a while.”
South Carolina is one of 15 states with an open primary in which voters generally do not have to register with a party in order to cast a ballot in that party’s primary. In other states, efforts have been underway to persuade officials to switch to an open primary, arguing that they encourage participation, particularly with independent voters.
Today, those looking to close the system contend that the open primary has stood in the way of lawmakers pursuing an even more conservative agenda; they believe that Democrats have interfered and thwarted the more right-wing candidates. (Experts said they have found little documented evidence of this, noting that, in many legislative races, candidates often do not face primary opposition.)
“It is hammering at changing the way we conduct our elections in order for parties to pick their own nominees without interference,” said Mr. Sullivan, who is leading an effort called Operation Chaos 2020, its name borrowed from a campaign led by the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh to sway the Democratic primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 in states like South Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Accusations of party raiding were also raised in the G.O.P. primary in Michigan in 2012 and in the Republican race in South Carolina in 2000.
Ms. Martin said a closed primary was a way of “infusing integrity back into the political process,” arguing that including those not aligned with the party would taint it. Stacy Shea, another organizer of Trump 2-29, added, “Our focus, quite frankly, was to give Democrats a taste of their own medicine when it comes to crossing over.”
The election in South Carolina this year — without a G.O.P. primary for Republicans to participate in and amid the growing Democratic angst — created an opening for conservative activists like Ms. Martin. “There is so much pressure on them,” she said of the Democrats. “It was the perfect time to apply a little more pressure.”
Republican officials in South Carolina have kept their distance from the effort. Hope Walker, the executive director of the South Carolina G.O.P., said in a statement that the party had “no official stand on this matter.”
“We do not like Democrats meddling in our primaries,” she said, “and we certainly do not encourage the same thing from Republican voters.”
Trav Robertson Jr., the chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, has expressed little concern. “As a state with an open primary system, anyone is free to take part in the democratic process that we champion,” Mr. Robertson said.
Yet some conservatives worried what a vote for the opposition party might mean. One of the queries posed on the frequently asked questions page of Operation Chaos’s website is “Won’t I be tarred forever as a Democrat?”
The reply: “No. Operation Chaos 2020 is a certified conservative program and since there is no corresponding Republican primary, you are excused.”
Operation Chaos has not called for voting for Mr. Sanders. In fact, Mr. Sullivan said he might vote for Mr. Biden. But the Trump 2-29 effort has encouraged Republicans to support Mr. Sanders because of his increased strength in the polls.
“We didn’t pick Bernie because he’s Bernie, because he’s the weakest or because he’s a socialist,” Ms. Martin said. “We picked him because of the math.”
Ms. Shea acknowledged the worries she has heard from some unsettled by the prospect of a Sanders presidency and any effort their voting this weekend might contribute to his ascendance.
“I know there’s a healthy dose of fear — ‘if Bernie wins, it’s your fault,’” Ms. Shea said, but she has tried to assuage that anxiety. “Heavens to Betsy, we’re not that powerful.”
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