COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Republican Party in a small, conservative South Carolina county expects its candidates to lower taxes. They also expect them to not watch porn, be faithful to their spouses and not have sex outside of marriage.
The Laurens County Republican Party originally decided that anyone who wanted to run for office with the GOP's blessing would have to sign a pledge and be approved by party leaders. They backed off that idea after the state party told them it was illegal and the pledge received international attention, becoming another cultural issues nightmare for Republicans.
The 28-point pledge passed last week appeared to be at least in part a response to an extramarital affair had by the county sheriff, who was also accused in a lawsuit of driving his mistress to get an abortion in a county-owned vehicle, leading to an inter-party squabble when the local group's leader called for the sheriff to resign.
The pledge is full of traditional Republican talking points in a conservative state – balancing budgets, opposing gun control laws and abortion, supporting school choice and a statement that marriage is "fundamental to the stability, betterment and perpetuation of our society."
But where the Laurens County pledge went off the rails was a proposal circulated along with it that would have created a committee to screen potential candidates based on whether they adhered to the promises. The committee could have kept a candidate from running as a Republican.
"We don't condone that. State law allows anyone on the ballot who meets the qualifications in the law," said state GOP executive director Matt Moore.
The committee might have had trouble with this year's presidential primary. Newt Gingrich, who has been married three times and admitted to having an affair with his current wife while married to his second one, received 42 percent of the vote in the county in January's presidential primary. Mitt Romney was second with 20 percent of the vote.
The pledge also received attention from around the country as the Republicans continue to absorb blows over whether religious organizations can refuse to pay for birth control for employees that use their insurance.
It's not clear if the qualification panel would have been put in place in time to keep the sheriff off the ballot. Laurens County Republican Party Chairman Bobby Smith didn't return messages seeking comment Tuesday. He did issue a statement Monday saying the county party would not keep anyone from the GOP ballot in the June primary, but retained the right to vet candidates on its own.
Smith got into a public fight with one of the county's chief Republicans last summer, when Sheriff Ricky Chastain admitted to having a two-and-a-half year affair with a subordinate at the sheriff's office. The woman sued him for sexual harassment, accusing the sheriff of driving her to get an abortion in a county-owned car. That lawsuit is still pending.
Smith called for Chastain to resign. He refused, and the issue appeared to have died down until the pledge was passed Feb. 28.
Chastain, who plans to run for a fourth term, was worried the pledge was intended to keep him off the ballot. Chastain said it should be up to the voters in Laurens County to decide whether he returns to office.
"A small group shouldn't decide who is best to represent Republicans in this county. It should be all Republicans," Chastain said.
Retired state trooper Don Reynolds announced his bid to get the Republican nomination for sheriff last fall. He said he wasn't consulted about the pledge. He supports its ideas, but has no plans to make Chastain's indiscretions a part of his campaign because everyone in the county already knows about them.
"I don't know how you can lack ethics in yourself and expect to be able to lead people," Reynolds said.