Republicans’ ‘Operation Chaos’ seeks to undermine South Carolina's Democratic primary

CHARLESTON, S.C., Feb 27 (Reuters) - Republican activists in South Carolina are urging party voters to do the seemingly unthinkable: support U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders' bid for the White House in the state's Democratic primary on Saturday.

The unusual effort is aimed at exposing what the activists see as flaws in the Southern state's open primary system - and at boosting the candidate many Republicans view as the easiest rival for Republican President Donald Trump to beat in November.

Sanders enters Saturday's contest as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, fueled by wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and a near-tie for first in Iowa.

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The Democratic debate in South Carolina
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The Democratic debate in South Carolina
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participate the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (R) look on during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) interact at a break during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden participate the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg speak after the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful billionaire activist Tom Steyer gives an interview in the spin room after participating in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Tom Steyer speak after the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders participate in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) interact at a break during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg gives an interview in the spin room after participating in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar hugs a man in the spin room after participating in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gives an interview in the spin room after participating in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gives an interview in the spin room after participating in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to media in the spin room after the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopeful former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg participates in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to an audience member after the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) interact during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (L) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) interact during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) interact at a break during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer (R) speaks as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) reacts during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) looks on during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) participate the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Members of the media, in the spin room, watch the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) speaks as former Vice President Joe Biden reacts during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden speak during a break at the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
(L-R) Democratic presidential hopefuls former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer participate in the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on stage during the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in four days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Members of the media, in the spin room, watch the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 25: Democratic presidential candidates (L-R) former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Tom Steyer participate in the Democratic presidential primary debate at the Charleston Gaillard Center on February 25, 2020 in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven candidates qualified for the debate, hosted by CBS News and Congressional Black Caucus Institute, ahead of South Carolina’s primary in 4 days. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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But the Vermonter, an independent who calls himself a democratic socialist, now faces a tough challenge from Joe Biden. The former vice president is bolstered by strong support from African Americans who comprise a large share of South Carolina's Democratic electorate.

"Bernie is a socialist and the most egregious of all the candidates. He is also the weakest against Trump,” said Pressley Stutts, a Tea Party activist and one of the organizers behind an interference effort dubbed "Operation Chaos."

The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats and Republicans previously have threatened to interfere with the other party’s primary process in South Carolina and elsewhere, generally without success. In Iowa, however, Republicans boasted they clogged Democratic Party telephone lines, exacerbating embarrassing delays in reporting caucus results.

State Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson called the Republican efforts “nonsense.” He said party leaders expect greater Democratic primary numbers not due to Republican gamesmanship but because voters are fed up with the “immoral, anti-Christian” person occupying the White House.

South Carolina voters do not register by party and are allowed to vote in either party's contest. After the state Republican Party canceled its primary this year out of deference to Trump, activists long angered by Democrats allegedly participating in local Republican votes saw an opportunity for payback.

Stutts said he has been inundated with emails, texts and social media messages from Republicans eager to join the effort. On Tuesday, he held a news conference in Greenville, South Carolina, to announce the plan to vote for Sanders after some internal wrangling over which candidate to support.

Karen Martin, a freelance editor and pet sitter in Spartanburg, is leading a similar effort she has coined "Trump 2-29" in a nod to the primary date. Like Stutts, she wants the state to change to a closed primary system and sees delivering a victory for Sanders as the best way to antagonize a Democratic Party that includes some who are reluctant to embrace his candidacy.

With no party registration figures, it will be difficult to measure the impact of the Republican organizing efforts.

A Public Policy Polling survey released on Monday found a "fair number" of Trump supporters planned to vote in the Democratic primary. But the survey said their dispersed support among several candidates meant they would not be a factor.

State Republican Party Chairman Drew McKissick said his organization has not endorsed the activists' efforts, nor has it called for the movement to stop.

"I am not sure exactly how much this will move the needle," he said. "I do know that I'm having fun watching the Democratic circus and that Bernie Sanders, a socialist, would provide the ultimate contrast between the two parties." (Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)

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