‘There’s a lot of crazy going on’: Pro-Trump lawyer blows up key GOP raceMay 2, 2021
Lin Wood played a starring role in Georgia’s GOP civil war after the 2020 elections. Now the pro-Trump lawyer is taking his roadshow to South Carolina, where he’s campaigning as a “chaos” candidate to lead the state Republican Party.
Wood, who transformed from a top Atlanta trial lawyer to a leading election conspiracy theorist in November, moved to South Carolina in February. Then the firebrand lawyer shocked the political establishment in one of the GOP’s most important state parties by mounting an unexpectedly strong challenge to the incumbent chairman, Drew McKissick.
The outcome has out-sized implications because of South Carolina’s role in GOP presidential primaries — the state hosts the first primary in the South, and almost always votes for the eventual Republican nominee. It’s emblematic of broader divisions between longtime GOP members and those brought into the Republican fold by Donald Trump, who remains the party’s center of gravity.
Trump has already endorsed McKissick, who went so far as to cancel the 2020 presidential primary in the state when the president ran for reelection. But in Wood’s telling, it was he who carried the true Trump mantle by fighting to overturn election results in Georgia while McKissick did too little to add his voice to the “Stop the Steal” movement.
An adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory, Wood contends Trump won the election in a landslide and is still president. Speaking without notes in a style that blends the skills of a preacher and an accomplished trial lawyer, Wood — who first gained fame as the attorney for the family of JonBenét Ramsey and also for Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing — has built a candidacy around his support of Trump, whom Wood said he supported in 2016 because he thought chaos was good for the country.
“We need some chaos in the Republican Party in South Carolina. Somebody needs to shake it up,” Wood said Tuesday in the city of Aiken to applause and laughter. “So here I am, Mr. Shaker.”
A day earlier, Wood heckled McKissick during a speech at a Hampton County GOP event and suggested the incumbent doesn’t care about stopping pedophiles. The two then had a face-to-face confrontation where McKissick swiped at Wood for raising vague allegations about “Chinese pornography.” The chairman’s supporters inevitably describe Wood as deranged, pointing out that the Georgia Bar is investigating his conduct and wants Wood to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
The acrimony boiled over notably in Greenville County, the largest Republican stronghold in the state, earlier this month. Bearing “Stop the Steal” signs, pro-Wood activists accused outgoing county GOP Chair Nate Leupp of rigging local party elections as they picketed the local party office and Leupp’s place of employment, a Christian music store called Majesty Music.
“There’s a lot of crazy going on in South Carolina,” Leupp said, dismissing the Wood-backing activists as “pitchfork- and torch-bearers.”
“All the politicos are buzzing with the same question: what in the world is going on South Carolina? You just can’t make this stuff up,” he said. “Big personalities are using a national narrative about Trump to their own advantage.”
The Greenville County GOP produced a split result when it held its county convention April 13. The county party chose a slate of new leaders, but didn’t elect two of the men most responsible for recruiting Wood to run for state party chair, Jeff Davis and Pressley Stutts.
Borrowing a tack from Trump, Stutts disputed the outcome, telling the Greenville News that he was “not buying” election results that were tabulated electronically in the virtual convention.
Due to the organizing efforts of Stutts and Davis, however, an overwhelming number of the 79 delegates the Greenville GOP elected to send to the May 15 state party convention support Wood.
In total, 870 delegates will vote at the state convention for a new chair. McKissick backers believe he’s well ahead in the delegate count over Wood, largely due to the chair’s longstanding party connections, Wood’s late start and his lack of deep ties in South Carolina. McKissick also presided over big successes for the party up and down the ballot in 2020.
Out of concern about the spread of Covid and the inability to secure an adequate venue in the state capital of Columbia, the state GOP on Wednesday decided it won’t hold a single large in-person state convention to pick the next chair. Instead, county parties will meet in-person, vote on paper ballots locally or at regional meetings, and report the results into the state meeting, where the final results will be tabulated publicly.
Already, Wood’s supporters are casting doubt on the integrity of the election process. Davis accuses the party establishment of “cheating” by rigging the delegate process, a claim disputed by party officials. He said some county party officials have refused to follow party rules concerning delegate names and qualifications.
“People move here and think South Carolina is a bastion of conservatism. No. We’re a bastion of the RINO elite establishment that needs to be taken out,” Davis said. “They are afraid because this will obviously have an effect on the 2024 election. In 2016, the establishment … did its damnedest to stop Donald Trump. I don’t think the establishment wants another Donald Trump. South Carolina is first in the South. We have a lot of influence on who will be the nominee.”
Davis predicted problems for former South Carolina GOP Gov. Nikki Haley, who is eyeing a presidential bid in 2024 but has earned the enmity of grassroots conservatives unhappy with her after she criticized Trump.
Former state party chair Chad Connelly, a McKissick supporter, agreed with Davis’s comments about South Carolina’s place in the GOP firmament, but said that electing Wood as chair would cause needless problems for a party that wants to win back the White House and keep the state red.
Connelly referred to Wood and those who recruited him “kamikazes, ne’er-do-wells and malcontents.”
“They’re not Republicans. They’re not conservative. They’re anarchists,” Connelly said, labelling Wood an outsider as well. “I’ve had clothes at the dry cleaner longer than Lin Wood has been a resident of South Carolina.”
McKissick’s backers also blame Wood for the GOP strife in Georgia and the party’s loss of two Senate seats there on Jan. 5 — Wood and other pro-Trump activists had suggested boycotting the election because they believed Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue didn’t do enough to question the November election results.
But former South Carolina Republican Gov. Mark Sanford said Republicans are blame-shifting from the root of the problem: Trump, his spreading of conspiracy theories and his destabilizing influence on the GOP overall.
Sanford marveled at how Wood could gain traction against McKissick, who recently oversaw an election where Republicans flipped a congressional seat, sheriffs races, and state House and Senate seats. Sanford, who made a brief 2020 primary challenge against Trump, pointed out that McKissick canceled the 2020 GOP primary in the state, robbing the state’s former governor of the opportunity to have a forum to discuss traditional conservative issues like the national debt and deficits.
“His candidacy is yet another manifestation of the Trump phenomenon. It’s varying degrees of crazy, a cult of personality,” Sanford said.
“What this really says is the party is wrestling with its own Trump demons. It’s one version of Trump versus another, more rabid version of Trump, but it’s all crazy,” Sanford said. “The fact that Wood can run and there’s any appetite for a new guy from out of state who has not been a part of GOP politics in South Carolina is unusual, but that fits with the era of Trump.”