South Carolina can continue to keep primary losers from mounting a rematch in the general election. A federal appeals court rejected a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union and 2008 state House candidate Eugene Platt.

The statute’s impact goes beyond the singular race the court considered. The 2010 Democratic Primary mess has shown the high stakes in these races and this law could play a larger role in Republican Party infighting as the GOP continues to split.

Sore loser statutes like South Carolina’s were designed to make sometimes contentious primaries the final word in party tiffs. Without it, a candidate who is narrowly defeated in the primary could mount a general election challenge and take his/her supporters.

In the decision, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Cameron Currie said the state has an interest “in minimizing excessive factionalism and party splintering.”

In 2008, Platt went for a hat-trick, first securing the Working Families and Green Party nominations before heading into the Democratic primary. He’d hoped that having his name affiliated with different parties would garner more votes and he would be able to cobble together for a win. But the State Election Commission invalidated Platt’s nomination for any party after the primary loss to Anne Peterson Hutto.

Judge Currie noted that Platt “could have splintered the Democratic Party voter base.”

The court doesn’t look at the numbers in its decision, but the results certainly suggest that could have been the case. Hutto defeated incumbent Wallace Scarborough by 211 votes out of nearly 20,000 cast. In the Democratic Primary, Platt had 515 supporters, so with just half of that support, he could have flipped the election and given Scarborough another win.

And we won’t have to speculate on the impact for much longer. Already in a tough race defending her seat against Republican Peter McCoy, Hutto will also face Platt’s third-party challenge as a Green candidate. He will likely also appear on the ballot as a petition candidate.

This year’s surprise Democratic primary results highlight the trouble with a sore loser statute. In the Senate race to challenge incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint in November, unknown candidate Alvin Greene won the primary in what many believe was a battle between two candidates that most Democratic voters were unfamiliar with.

In the fallout, frustrated Democrats looked frantically for an alternative to place on the November ballot as a petition candidate. Considering the national exposure both primary candidates have since received, Greene’s challenger, Vic Rawl, would have been a natural option. But the sore loser statute makes even an independent Rawl run impossible.

Similarly, perennial Democratic Primary candidate Ben Frasier made it to the November ballot in the 1st Congressional District, beating party favorite Robert Burton. Hoping to pull in more votes, Burton had already secured a spot on the November ballot as the Working Families Party nominee, but State Chair Erin McKee told the City Paper that Burton will be removed from the ballot after his primary loss, due to state law.

Those two races put Democrats on notice regarding the consequences of the law, but Republicans should take note, too. Many have suggested a conservative primary challenge is imminent for Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2014.

Graham should be on notice that he won’t be able to mount the kind of general-election comeback seen from his friend Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who lost the 2006 Democratic Primary, but won the seat as an independent.

And, if there is a serious challenger for Graham’s seat, he or she will have to weigh a GOP primary battle or a third-party campaign in November. Success is possible in the primary, but they won’t get a second chance.

Web extra:

There was a lot more we could say about this issue, but I did want to add Platt’s response to the court’s decision. Contrary to our headline, he does not feel like a loser.

“Naturally, the South Carolina Green Party is disappointed by today’s ruling,” he told the City Paper in a statement. “However, we are no worse off now than when we started. Indeed, we may be better off. That is because thousands more voters are aware of our existence — and our party has a fuller slate of candidates for the November election than ever before!”

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