Upstate contest a microcosm of the civil war between Freedom Caucus and majority GOP

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COLUMBIA — One of the most crowded primaries in South Carolina will decide if a ruby red Greenville County seat in the state House continues to be held by the hardline Freedom Caucus that’s been warring with the chamber’s majority Republicans. 

With Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ashley Trantham, R-Pelzer, not seeking re-election, the 28th House District is up for grabs. And the six people who filed to run for it include five Republicans who will face off in the June 11 primary. The only other race with as many candidates is House District 93, south of Columbia, where the primary contest is between Democrats.   

House District 28 sits at the southern end of Greenville County (SC Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office/SC Daily Gazette)

The Republican candidates are Kerri Smith, who says she won’t join the uber-right Freedom Caucus; Chris Huff, Trantham’s handpicked successor; and Troy Prosser, Daniel Rumfelt and Allen Kellett, who have not committed either way.

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A runoff between two of them is likely. In South Carolina, a candidate needs at least one vote over 50% to win a primary outright. 

Whoever wins the primary will face J. Fritz Wiebel, a self-described conservative Democrat, in November. Even he doesn’t expect to win, but he wanted to give voters a choice.

None of the candidates have held elected office before.

The race to represent the district, which encompasses much of southern Greenville County, is a microcosm of the intra-party GOP fight going on across the state, as the June primaries will decide whether the 17-member caucus launched two years ago grows or diminishes in strength next year.

Four of them aren’t seeking re-election, including two running for Congress in the Upstate. Eleven are fighting GOP challengers to keep their seats. Only two are running unopposed with a guarantee to return.

The 2022 elections gave Republicans supermajority control of the state House. Of the 124-member chamber, 88 are Republicans — their largest majority since Reconstruction. But growing rancor between the Freedom Caucus and the majority Republican caucus meant debates in the chamber often devolved into GOP vs. GOP fights, with Democrats sometimes looking on with amusement.   

Freedom Caucus members say they are pushing the Statehouse to true conservative values. Their GOP critics counter they’re obstructionists who talk in bumper-sticker slogans to twist the truth. 

In the race to replace Trantham, Rep. R.J. May, a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus who makes his living running campaigns, is working to elect Huff. And Walter Whetsell, whose political consulting firm has become a go-to for Freedom Caucus challengers, is working to elect Smith. 

The running of campaigns to oust fellow Republicans is exactly what got the Freedom Caucus booted from the majority caucus after the November 2022 elections. The House Majority Caucus newly required members to sign a pledge not to work for GOP challengers. Freedom Caucus members, led by May, refused, keeping them outside of majority GOP caucus meetings since. A couple of Republicans left the Freedom Caucus amid the kerfuffle to stay with the majority.

Trantham, first elected in a 2018 special election, was among Republican incumbents who refused to sign.

And this year, the smaller caucus has aggressively recruited candidates to challenge incumbents and grow its ranks.

May personally is working to defend several Freedom Caucus incumbents and help a handful of challengers unseat GOP incumbents. The Lexington Republican says he thinks the Freedom Caucus will not only keep its current seats, including Trantham’s, but pick up a few more.

“Ashley was never one to take her marching orders from the people in Columbia. She took her marching orders from people back home, and I think she wanted to make sure the next representative from District 28 had that same mantra,” May said.

But the majority caucus is fighting back.  

Whetsell, whose firm is in Lexington, said he is working with a half dozen candidates who are challenging Freedom Caucus incumbents seeking re-election and another half dozen majority GOP incumbents being challenged by would-be Freedom Caucus members.

“They largely have the same political philosophy of the Freedom Caucus and their leaders of blowing the place up and being contentious and being rabble rousers to the point of losing any belief or sight of trying to accomplish anything productive,” Whetsell said. 

The Freedom Caucus celebrated big wins on the last day of the regular session May 9, as members’ objections in the final hour managed to kill several bills advocated by GOP leaders in both chambers. That included proposals to streamline municipal elections and merge six agencies in an overhaul of the public health system. Some legislators want to try to resurrect both of those in extended sessions in June. 

Even Gov. Henry McMaster has weighed in, asking legislators to add the health care bill to the agenda. But amending what they can do when they return will take a supermajority vote in both chambers. And the Freedom Caucus itself may make that difficult.

“That’s a perfect example of the lack of direction that they have,” Whetsell said. “I mean, literally, this is a bill that consolidated state agencies, made them more efficient, and accountable to an elected official.”

May, who worked for Whetsell about a decade ago, said the blocking of the health bill was the fulfillment of promises to their constituents to oppose big government.

“Yes, it did give us a boost, and conservatives across the state a boost, that there’s actually a group of legislators willing to fight for the people back home and not for special interests,” he said. “And of course, that comes with more arrows towards us.” 

Other groups are being drawn into the back and forth. For example, the far-right group Palmetto Gun Rights, which faults the NRA as too liberal, is lining up behind Freedom Caucus members. On the other side is the anti-Freedom Caucus Palmetto Truth Project, in which Whetsell is involved.

“I think what you’re seeing are the battle lines being drawn currently,” May said. 

The candidates of House District 28

Chris Huff

Huff, a retired pastor living in Pelzer, is running as the Freedom Caucus candidate. Huff did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the SC Daily Gazette. 

In one of two candidate debates, Huff said he wants to “get rid of property taxes,” which are levied by counties, not the state, to pay for local services and public schools. He also opposes the state providing incentives to lure economic development deals.

“What we’ve seen is the swamp has continued to get deeper, deeper, deeper, and more liberal and more liberal and more liberal,” he said of the Statehouse in that debate.

May said Huff met with the whole Freedom Caucus and was “right on all the issues.” 

Allen Kellett, Republican candidate for SC House District 28 (Provided by Allen Kellett)

“We have confidence that Chris makes it into the runoff. The question is with who,” May said. “After that, I think we’ll find the majority of voters coalesce around Chris, because he’s the only one I think in that race who will carry on Mrs. Trantham’s conservative fighting spirit.”

Allen Kellett

Kellett, 53 of Simpsonville, is a farmer and former president of the Greenville County Farm Bureau. He began campaigning in September of last year and said he likely would have run whether Trantham stepped down or not. 

His main concern is passing what he calls commonsense legislation, instead of getting bogged down in other fights, he said.

“We’ll have a bill that is a no-brainer, that should pass with no opposition, something that’s good for the people of every district,” he said. “It doesn’t make it through session and then they have to bring it up the next session.”

He wants to see judicial selection reform and more money for roads in the Greenville area.

Kellett sad he’ll decide whether to join the Freedom Caucus after the runoff, if he makes it that far. 

“I agree with about 95% of the things the Freedom Caucus agrees with,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t agree with how they try to get things done.”

Troy Prosser 

Prosser, 51, of Fountain Inn, jumped into the race after he heard Trantham wasn’t seeking another term. Prosser works in telecommunications and owns a 52-acre farm that grows a variety of crops, including flowers and produce, has chickens and makes money as an event venue and through festivals. He has also served on various boards, including the Canebrake Fire Commission.

Troy Prosser, Republican candidate for SC House District 28 (Provided by Troy Prosser)

Prosser said he’s concerned about roads, taxes and expanding the state’s private school choice law. 

“I firmly believe parents should have a choice on where they want to invest their dollars for their children’s education,” he said.

And while he says any candidate promising to change Columbia single handedly is lying, he thinks he can motivate constituents to come and lobby for what the district needs.

As for the Freedom Caucus, Prosser said he would base his decision on what he is hearing from voters — and so far, most want him to join, he said.

“I think, majority of the time, I would vote with the Freedom Caucus,” he said.

Daniel Rumfelt

Rumfelt, 35, of Pelzer, said he is running to bring his generation back to conservative values. Rumfelt works in manufacturing for ZF Transmission and jumped into the race last fall. 

On the issues, Rumfelt is concerned about the spread of energy-hogging data centers in the state, agriculture damage from deer and hogs, and the state of roads in the district, among other things.

Daniel Rumfelt, Republican candidate for SC House District 28 (Provided by Daniel Rumfelt)

While Rumfelt describes himself as a major supporter of Trantham, he is skeptical of the Freedom Caucus. 

“I won’t want to become an ineffective leader for my district,” he said. “They have great concepts, but the way they conduct themselves is just not professional in my eyes.”

Kerri Smith

Smith, 60, of Simpsonville, is the South Carolina regional president for the Self-Help Credit Union. She has worked with credit unions for 37 years, she said.

“I’m stepping up to bring practical solutions and commonsense reforms to Columbia,” she wrote in an email to the SC Daily Gazette. “This is my first run for office, driven by a commitment to make South Carolina a place where every resident can flourish.”

Kerri Smith, Republican candidate for SC House District 28 (Provided by Kerri Smith)

Smith said she wants to raise pay for law enforcement, expand the state’s school choice law, and invest in roads and high-speed internet. She describes herself as a staunch conservative — and firmly anti-Freedom Caucus.

“This small, noisy faction pressures others to conform to their disruptive tactics and manipulates voters into believing there’s a problem where none exists, presenting their obstructionist approach as the solution,” she wrote.

Whetsell said he has known Smith for years and did not recruit her to run. Smith said she reached out to his firm, Starboard Communications, when she decided to run for office based on the company’s reputation.

Fritz Wiebel

Wiebel, 68 of Piedmont, is the lone Democrat in the race.

He said he’s been running for office for about half a century, since a school board run at 19 in 1976, but has never been elected. Wiebel is a retiree and an Air Force veteran.

J. Fritz Wiebel, Democratic candidate for SC House District 28 (Provided by J. Fritz Wiebel)

The self-described conservative Democrat is concerned about Duke Energy’s rising rates to customers. He wants to legalize marijuana, increase tax breaks for homeowners, and authorize casinos in the state.

He’s almost certain not to win the staunchly Republican seat. But he said he wanted to make sure the Republican primary winner had competition in November. 

There will be no “Republicans in my face without opposition,” he said. “It’s going to cost them to keep (the seat).”

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