Photo by Janine Robinson on Unsplash

The utter shellacking that South Carolina Democrats got in the 2022 midterms is just plain embarrassing.

Unfortunately, they can’t blame it on a twisted redistricting of the S.C. House of Representatives by House Republicans. While Democrats lost seven seats there to allow the GOP to take a dominating 88-36 margin, they also lost two statewide races by wide margins.

“The governor’s race was a 17.5-point blowout, but the [state] superintendent of education race, which should have been close, was a 13-point blowout,” Winthrop University pollster Scott Huffmon said. “There are statewide races with no Democratic nominee.  This shows a lack of depth on the bench of candidates and the concomitant lack of successful recruiting of candidates.”

Spot on. What’s worse is the paltry coordinated effort by the party and subpar work by individual candidates to get out the base vote.  A big reason for that was the lack of resources.  The state Democratic Party obviously didn’t have much national money to spend in the elections because it’s still reeling from fallout over the 2020 loss of now Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison, who spent $130 million to lose to GOP U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Why, ask national funders, spend money in ruby-red South Carolina again if that much money can’t defeat a polarizing figure like Graham? 

College of Charleston political science professor Kendra Stwart pointed to two other problems for state Democrats in 2022.

“Overall, voter turnout was down from the last midterm/gubernatorial election – which likely was a result of disproportionately fewer Democrats turning out,” she said. “In general, I would say there was a lack of a driving issue or message that excited Democratic voters to bring them to the polls.”

In politics, successful campaigns follow four Ms — media, message, money and machine.  Democratic gubernatorial nominee Joe Cunningham did a good job of getting in the press, but he and other Democrats suffered by lack of a galvanizing message, too little money and a machine that seems to be rusting in a tobacco field, stuck in the past. 

“It is not unusual in states where one party dominates for voters to feel like their vote does not matter since there is no way their party will win,” Stewart observed. “I think Cunningham’s major loss could be because his campaign was not able to mobilize new, younger voters to get to the polls and support him.  

“He was also not a candidate that excited Black voters in the way other candidates have — and since Black voters make up a large portion of Democratic voters in South Carolina, their turnout is critical.”

Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said Cunningham was the right kind of candidate, but he had an uphill battle.

“Cunningham is exactly the kind of Democrat you’d want to run in a conservative state, but we haven’t had any close statewide elections in years. And Democratic voters in the state feel like it’s a lost cause,” she said. And that, in turn, makes it difficult to get people out to vote – even with early voting.

Don’t lose sight of another reason for sweeping Democratic losses — Republicans generally ran great campaigns — when there was someone to run against. But look at all of the House seats, particularly in the gerrymandered, bright-red Upstate that had no Democratic challengers.  There wasn’t a reason for a reliable Democratic voter to go to the polls and vote against GOP positions on abortion or other issues. So they just didn’t bother.

State Democrats face some hard choices if they want to remain viable in the South Carolina political environment. While there’s sure to be a leadership shake-up, they also need to take a history lesson from Republicans and look what they did in the 1970s and 1980s to mature from a minority party to a majority powerhouse. Across the state, Democrats need to invest in better campaigning, better mobilization and better use of resources. Otherwise, it’s going to be more of the same and too many voters won’t have real choices — or real political checks and balances.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of the Charleston City Paper and Statehouse Report. Have a comment?  Send to: feedback@charlestoncitypaper.com.


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