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By Gram Slattery, Tim Reid and Alexandra Ulmer
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - In Las Vegas, Nevada, Republican activists want to recapture the party from a local leader who backs former President Donald Trump’s false election fraud claims. In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a battle for control of the local Republican party’s assets has wound up in court. In North Carolina, party activists are seeking to punish Republican Senator Thom Tillis for his support for same-sex marriage rights.
As the 2024 presidential race kicks into gear, local Republican party organizations in many parts of the United States are consumed by rebellions, infighting and court battles that some officials and strategists said could damage the party’s chances of winning back the White House.
Reuters spoke to more than 50 operatives, activists and party officials in competitive states Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, which Trump narrowly lost in 2020; North Carolina, which he won; and in the key early primary state of South Carolina. Nevada also holds an early presidential nominating contest.
While Republican divisions in Congress have been widely covered, Reuters looked at grassroots battles, especially in the small handful of states that remain truly competitive, that have not been closely examined.
Some strategists and officials warned the spectacle of a party at war with itself in electoral battlegrounds and early primary states risks turning off voters and donors.
"The degree to which we can manage this will determine how well our presidential candidate does," said Maurice Washington, the chair of the Republican Party in South Carolina’s Charleston County, a regular campaign stop for presidential candidates, and himself a target of right-wing challengers.
“There’s always that potential of behavior patterns turning off middle-of-the-road voters,” Washington said.
Although it is too early in the election cycle to see a direct impact of these fights, and these feuds could subside once a presidential nominee is chosen, Ronna McDaniel, the head of the Republican National Committee, the party's central governing body, has called for unity.
Larry Hogan, a Trump critic who left office in January after serving two terms as the Republican governor of Maryland, told Reuters it was crucial for the party to move beyond the former president if it wanted to win the 2024 elections.
Democrats outperformed expectations and avoided a Republican "red wave" in the November 2022 midterm elections, in part because voters shunned a slew of Trump-backed, hard-right candidates.
"Voters sent a clear message in the last three elections: they want competence and common sense solutions, not more crazy,” Hogan said. “If we want to start winning again, then we have to start listening."
Not everyone agrees. North Carolina State Representative Mark Brody, who supports censuring Sen. Tillis, says it is better to address differences directly.
“I think one of the things that we fight against is that there is a tendency to say: Maybe we should just leave this alone. One side says: don’t bring this up because some people might turn away," he said. "My side is: Let’s address that, and let’s set the record straight."
IN NEVADA, A PARTY REVOLT
In Nevada's Clark County, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the state's population, Margaret White, a former chief of staff for county Republicans, is leading about 50 current and former party members in a rebellion against the current county party leader Jesse Law in the swing state.
White said that Law’s support for Trump’s false election fraud claims and his backing for far-right candidates in last November's midterm elections are damaging Republicans' prospects in 2024. Most state and local candidates backed by Law lost in the midterms.
The activists filed paperwork last month to launch a non-profit organization called "Las Vegas Voices of Reason." White and Drew Hirsty, the county party member who made the filing, told Reuters that formalizing the structure will allow them to raise funds among independent voters as well as Republicans.
The group is contacting 400 Republicans, who resigned or were expelled from the party since Law took over in 2021, asking them to register to vote so they can remove him in the summer leadership contest, White said.
"We want normal people in charge who can appeal to moderates, independents and minorities, and that's not Jesse Law,” White told Reuters.
White said the party needs to appeal to a broader set of voters; otherwise it will keep losing elections. About half of White’s core group of 50 are Black, Hispanic or Asian, reflecting the diverse demographics of Nevada. Law backed several far right candidates that lost in November's midterms.
Law, who served as a senior member of Trump's 2016 and 2020 campaigns in Nevada, and the county party did not respond to requests for comment.
John Bruchhagen, a Republican podcaster who says he is friends with people in both factions, said Law has worked hard to boost voter turnout and promote candidates but has an “impossible” job because the local party has become so factionalized.
The fighting in Clark County escalated in January when White was involved in a standoff with party members at the county party’s central committee meeting in Las Vegas.
White, who quit her post last year in protest at Law’s leadership, showed up with two bodyguards, one of whom was retired Las Vegas Police Lieutenant Randy Sutton, who told Reuters he carried a concealed firearm to the meeting.
White was ordered to leave by a security guard. Sutton told Reuters he was challenged to a fight by one Republican at the meeting who was part of a group that objected to White's presence.
Law and the county party did not respond to questions about the standoff.
ARIZONA: A BID TO CHANGE PRIMARY RULES
In Arizona, a former conservative stronghold that is now a swing state, a group of Republicans dismayed by hard-right candidates who deny the 2020 election are raising money and gathering signatures to force a referendum on an amendment to the state constitution that would open primary elections to all voters, according to Beau Lane, a Republican businessman who is involved in the effort.
Lane, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Arizona Secretary of State last year, said his Save Democracy AZ group wants more moderate, less polarizing figures to emerge from the primary process.
SOUTH CAROLINA: FIGHTING OVER PARTY ASSETS
In one of South Carolina's most populous counties, a breakaway far-right faction of the party led by Roger Slagle and Chad Caton who support the former president’s false claims of election fraud, reject candidates they say are insufficiently conservative.
These include former two-term South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who announced in February she was running for president; South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who is widely expected to run for the presidency as well; and the former Vice President Mike Pence.
When the party prepared to host Pence at an event – which the former vice-president subsequently canceled – Caton criticized the effort in a text message to Reuters as part of a “plan to push Trump out.”
Scott's office declined to comment. Ken Farnaso, a spokesperson for Haley, did not respond to a request for comment.
HAVE REQUESTED PENCE COMMENT
The split dates back to last September when Slagle and his allies briefly quit the party but maintained control of the county party's website, bank account, and folding tables and chairs. A judge last month ordered Slagle’s group to hand over the chairs.
Both sides acknowledge a legal fight over the bank account is likely. "Is it something you want to spend party funds on? No," said Reese Boyd III, who is the recognized party county leader. "We're all inside the big tent, and we're shooting machine guns at one another. It's not productive for anyone."
CENSURE FOR NORTH CAROLINA SENATOR
In North Carolina, Republican party committees in about a third of the state's counties have voted to censure Republican Senator Tillis for his support for same-sex marriage rights. They are now seeking a state-wide condemnation, which would block Tillis's access to party resources and funds in a potential Senate primary.
Although Tillis retains support among the party establishment, Jim Womack, a county party chair, says the Senator’s critics are gaining strength. “The North Carolina Republican party will eventually be decentralized to the point where the grassroots will actually run the party,” Womack said.
Tillis did not respond to requests for comment.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Tim Reid in Las Vegas and Alexandra Ulmer in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Nathan Layne in Hillsdale, Michigan. Editing by Ross Colvin and Suzanne Goldenberg)