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 Carolina’s first openly gay legislator — elected, no less, from Greenville’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 wasn’t forthcoming during the primary with the fact that he was gay and that voters didn’t have enough information to make their decision.
There is no air of mystery 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 — 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 making Elliott's sexual orientation his top issue.
The theory that state Republicans have shifted toward a more inclusive stance toward the issue could be affirmed in the voting booth, but perhaps not completely, said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor.
“If 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 he’s gay would mean that they haven’t broken completely away from that.
“The question is not, at this point, ‘Will it matter to his constituents?’ The question isn’t even, ‘Will it matter to Republicans?’ The question is, ‘Will it matter to the hard-core committed Republicans who show up to vote in primaries?’”
Jason Elliott's Sexuality as an Issue
In a recent interview with The Greenville News, Elliott said allegations that he misled voters 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 had assumed most people knew about his sexual orientation because he didn't hide it. He said the issue 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.
“I 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. Frankly, my orientation never comes up in Columbia within the Statehouse. It rarely comes up anywhere, and when it does, it is most often and almost exclusively an issue for my political opponents.”
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?"
The former head of the Greenville County Republican Party offered little elaboration through email. Harms, who identifies himself as a husband and father and a member of the Christian Brookwood Church, 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 differently 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 opportunities to address his past assertions regarding Elliott's sexual orientation and whether Elliott misled voters.
“Certainly, those questions were raised to us by voters, but I’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 we’re presenting our case, and I know the other candidates are presenting theirs, and the voters can decide."
When asked 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 with "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 "alcohol more accessible around churches, schools and playgrounds."
The act, which in May passed the House 99-5, allows on-premises service of alcohol in the proximity to churches, schools and playgrounds so long as the governing bodies of those organizations affirmatively state they don't object to the location.
In response, Elliott said in a statement, "My opponent’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 neighborhood 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 and 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.
However, while there is no objective study, there is the possibility that the district is changing as Greenville re-urbanizes and becomes more dense, which would result in an influx of new voters, Huffmon said.
When the 2020 census is complete, he said, district lines could be redrawn in such a way that, for instance, Bob Jones is no longer included.
“Because 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.”
Credentials to be Weighed by Conservative Voters
In keeping with the current perceived political makeup of the district, Elliott makes it a point to highlight just how conservative he says his votes are — voting against last year's gas tax increase for road infrastructure; defending Second Amendment rights in part by calling for armed resource officers in every school and arming teachers if they possess advanced, military-level training; passing school-choice legislation; and receiving an endorsement from the anti-abortion group South Carolina Citizens for Life.
In the interest of supporting public safety, Elliott said he sponsored legislation that was enacted into law that re-institutes the requirement for vision screening for drivers.
To promote economic growth, he said he has led the legislative effort to allow technical schools to offer four-year degrees in applied manufacturing to help fill industrial jobs that pay well but remain empty.
Elliott also led the effort to remove the requirement that all high school students take the ACT college placement exam and allow them the choice to take a "career readiness test" instead to help remove what he sees as a stigma of attending technical college.
“Not every student needs to go to a four-year school," he said. "We say that, and we need to put our efforts behind that. I’m an effective conservative leader with a proven record of fighting for Greenville."
Brocato said he couldn't point to a vote Elliott made that he disagrees with.
“There’s nothing specifically that we’ve chosen to highlight as questionable," Brocato said.
But Brocato said change is needed.
“We need more technical expertise in government," he said. "I hope to bring my engineering expertise. And we need more, basically, regular people to be involved in the state government.”
Brocato said that more needs to be done to reform what he says is a corrupt state government, citing the failed V.C. Summer nuclear reactor project that electricity customers underwrote and examples of repeated ethics violations that he says result in light punishment for legislators.
Brocato said the gas tax, which legislators increased by 12 cents per gallon last year after years of debate, should have a sunset clause that could be used as incentive to reform the state Department of Transportation.
Brocato also said he wants to dissolve the State Infrastructure Bank that funds large-scale projects and has faced charges of cronyism.
“I don’t think things are cleaned up in Columbia, and we may not be able to expect the gas tax money to be used efficiently,” he said.
Elliott said he voted against the gas tax increase because DOT reform is needed to place the agency under the executive supervision of the governor's office.
When asked why he is running, Harms said in an email that "last year, the taxpayers were hit with the largest tax increase in the history of South Carolina." When asked to elaborate, Harms said, "I will vote to cut spending and reduce the tax burden on the taxpayers."
Brocato said he wants to reform education by supporting school choice initiatives such as "tax credit scholarships" but not ones like vouchers or education savings accounts that he says have failed in other states.
“That may not take money away from the school system in general," Brocato said, "but leaving open the possibility of under-performing schools losing funding is a good thing.”
On gun rights, Brocato said that "so-called 'assault-style weapons' are not uniquely deadly, are not weapons of war, and should not be restricted. Fully automatic weapons are entirely different and have been continuously restricted since the 1930s."
When asked to elaborate on the issues raised by his opponents involving Second Amendment rights, school choice, gas taxes and government corruption, Harms wrote in an email, "The issue in the campaign is that Jason Elliott misled the district voters."