GREENVILLE, S.C. â€” The narrative took hold in the months following the summer primary and leading up to what seemed to be an inevitable outcome two Novembers ago.
Republican State Rep. Jason Elliott would be South Carolinaâ€™s first openly gay legislator â€” elected, no less, from Greenvilleâ€™s heavily conservative District 22 that includes Bob Jones University, an emblem of staunch social and religious conservatism.
It was a sign, the story goes, of a shift in the South Carolina GOP to a larger tent that could include a broader constituency.
But a neophyte Republican challenger emerged after the fact, mounting an ultimately unsuccessful write-in campaign based on the notion that Elliott wasnâ€™t forthcoming during the primary with the fact that he was gay and that voters didnâ€™t have enough information to make their decision.
There is no air of mysteryÂ now, if there ever was to begin with.
The Republican primary is a little more than a week away.
The narrative will be put to the test.
Elliott faces two challengers who both presently and in the past have raised questions about his sexual orientation â€” though today they offer no specific objections to his voting record.
The challenger in November 2016, engineer Brett Brocato, has returned for the primary on June 12. This time around he is declining to address his past assertions that Elliott both misled voters and doesn’t represent the moral values of his constituency.
Another challenger, attorney Samuel Harms, is makingÂ Elliott’s sexual orientationÂ his top issue.
The theory thatÂ state Republicans have shifted toward a more inclusive stance toward the issue could be affirmed in the voting booth,Â but perhaps not completely, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor.
â€œIf he is re-elected, it certainly could be seen as a break in expectations of the South Carolina Republican Party, no doubt,” Huffmon said. “But the fact that he has someone running against him merely because heâ€™s gayÂ would mean that they havenâ€™t broken completely away from that.
â€œThe question is not, at this point, â€˜Will it matter to his constituents?â€™ The question isnâ€™t even, â€˜Will it matter to Republicans?â€™ The question is, â€˜Will it matter to the hard-core committed Republicans who show up to vote in primaries?â€™â€
Jason Elliott’s sexuality asÂ an issue
In a recentÂ interview with The Greenville News, Elliott said allegations that he misled votersÂ during the June 2016 primary where he beat four-term incumbent Wendy Nanney in a landslide are “completely false.”
Elliott, a family law attorney, said he hadÂ assumed most people knew about his sexual orientation because he didn’t hide it. He saidÂ theÂ issueÂ didn’t come up until after he won the primary.
In the end, he said, he has had one of the most conservative voting records in what is perceived as one of South Carolina’s most conservative districts.
â€œI get that being the first to accomplish something generates attention,” Elliott said, “but my orientation has zero impact on my ability to fight for and deliver conservative results for Greenville.Â Frankly, my orientation never comes up in Columbia within the Statehouse. It rarely comes up anywhere, and when it does,Â it is most often and almost exclusively an issue for my political opponents.â€
In answer to a questionnaire emailed to each candidate by The Greenville News, Harms listed one sentence to describe the top issue he’s running on: “In the last election, why did Jason Elliott publicly announce that he is proud to be a homosexual right after the polls closed?”
TheÂ former head of the Greenville County Republican PartyÂ offered little elaboration through email. Harms, who identifies himself as a husband and fatherÂ and a member of the Christian Brookwood Church,Â declined multiple requests to talk via telephone.
“I think Jason Elliott misled the district voters,” Harms wrote in answer to a request to elaborate.
When asked if he disagreed with any of Elliott’s votes as a representative, how he might vote differentlyÂ and what he would disagree with Elliott on, Harms responded with one sentence, “I do not support gay marriage.”
In October 2016, Brocato mounted his write-in campaign after he said conservative Christian residents approached him to run “so people with conservative sexual values would have an alternative.”
Brocato characterizes himself as a married father of four who a decade ago “surrendered his life to Christ.”
He declined multiple opportunitiesÂ to address his past assertions regarding Elliott’s sexual orientation and whether Elliott misled voters.
â€œCertainly, those questions were raised to us by voters, but Iâ€™d like to concentrate on the race this time around,” Brocato said. “The voters can decide what type of person they want representing them, so weâ€™re presenting our case, and I know the other candidates are presenting theirs, and the voters can decide.”
When askedÂ about criminal history as part of The Greenville News‘ customary background checks for candidates, Brocato said that while he was an engineering student in 2003, he was arrested and charged withÂ “driving while intoxicated,” though he was ultimately exonerated.
Brocato said the incident “shook my world,” but “despite being declared not guilty, I recognized that my action was irresponsible. Thankfully, God used that event to begin changing my life permanently.”
Brocato said public safety would be one of his top priorities in office, and he took the opportunity to criticize Elliott for a vote on making “alcoholÂ more accessible around churches, schoolsÂ and playgrounds.”Â
The act, which in May passed the House 99-5, allows on-premises service of alcohol in the proximity toÂ churches, schools and playgrounds so long as the governing bodies of those organizations affirmatively state they don’t object to the location.Â Â
In response, Elliott said in a statement, “My opponentâ€™s attempt to deflect attention from his DUI arrest is sad. What kind of person blames an elected official for his own personal transgression? I hope that Mr. Brocato got the help he needs.”
In an email, Harms said, “I have no comment on Brocato’s arrest.”
The issues of morality and family values have long permeated District 22, which stretches from the North Main neighborhoodÂ along Wade Hampton Boulevard past Bob Jones University and on to parts of Pelham Road.
Elliott’s predecessor, Wendy Nanney, was the daughter of a Bob Jones University dean andÂ supported traditionally Republican issues and championed legislation that prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Elliott campaigned against Nanney on what he said was a record of her absenteeism.Â
However, while there is no objective study, there is the possibility that the district is changing as Greenville re-urbanizes andÂ becomes more dense, which would result in an influx ofÂ new voters, Huffmon said.
When the 2020 census is complete, he said, district lines could be redrawn in such a way that, for instance,Â Bob Jones is no longer included.
â€œBecause of the change of the urban landscape, this district could really be changing,” Huffmon said. “And if he kept it, as a Republican that would definitely be a trend to watch.â€
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Follow Eric Connor onÂ Twitter: @cericconnor