- Associated Press - Thursday, May 29, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina Democratic Party is taking sides in one of its primaries for the U.S. Senate.

The party’s executive committee voted unanimously late Wednesday to endorse state Sen. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg over businessman Jay Stamper in the race for U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s seat.

The news release from Democrats announcing the decision was full of praise for Hutto and criticism for Graham. But the decision from party leaders is more of a repudiation of Stamper. Democrats hope to avoid choosing a nominee that many party members can’t support. That happened in the U.S. Senate races in 2010 with Alvin Greene and 2008 with Bob Conley.

Party leaders cannot support Stamper because he has felony convictions from 2008 for selling unregistered securities in Nevada and the party isn’t sure he has Democrats’ best interests in mind after moving to South Carolina last year without a lot of explanation, said state party leader Jamie Harrison.

Stamper said his convictions were a paperwork mistake and he has been open about what happened. Harrison and Democratic leaders are against him because he supports gun control, abortion rights and gay marriage - positions some Democrats are against because they want to win elections, Stamper said.

“The endorsement is consistent with Jaime Harrison’s belief that we need to act like Republicans to be elected as Democrats,” Stamper wrote in an email. “On a positive note, at least the state party is apparently no longer supporting Lindsey Graham, a departure from a year ago when it effectively endorsed him in a press release as ‘one of the few federal elected officials in South Carolina who actually works to try to get things done to help our state’s families and businesses.’”

Stamper said the decision surprised him because he had a nice conversation with Harrison when he was thinking about running late last year.

Harrison remembers that conversation differently, saying he first encouraged Stamper to run for something like school board of the state House until he gets to know the party leaders better. Harrison said the conversation then deteriorated and he escorted Stamper and his wife out of his office after they suggested he wasn’t a strong enough supporter of President Barack Obama.

Stamper and Harrison had a sharp exchange on Twitter last month. Stamper told Harrison, “It wouldn’t hurt to support candidates who agree with you.”

Harrison replied that the party knew and respected Hutto, then followed up by asking Stamper “with all due respect you moved here a year ago with a criminal record. What qualifies you to be our nominee for Senate?”

Harrison formed the new vetting process after he took over the state party last year. He has said Democrats must select stronger candidates if they want to challenge Republicans. The GOP controls all nine statewide officers, from governor on down, both U.S. Senate seats and six of the seven U.S. House seats.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face the Republican primary winner, which includes Graham and six other candidates and Libertarian Victor Kocher.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP