If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last seven years under the leadership of Gov. Mark Sanford, it’s that he’s not leading the ship. Sanford’s more like the preacher-in-chief. There is no one in state politics with a bigger soapbox, but all he can do is yell upstairs at the legislature and hope someone pays attention.

Lowcountry representatives do hold much of the power in the Statehouse, but they aren’t the shade of blue you’d expect from an area that voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

State Democratic House leader Harry Ott of Calhoun gets a big smile on his face when he talks about how the GOP majority has left the state’s finances in bleak shape. They’ve pinned millions in state revenues — money needed for schools and local tax relief — on sales tax dollars that will or won’t materialize based on the whims of Charleston tourists. This month, the legislature will begin to weave through a difficult budget year, faced with another $560 million in necessary cuts.

As Republican leaders pledge a razor-sharp focus on job creation, Ott sighs.

“Who do you want to blame for (South Carolina) not being attractive to job creation?” Ott asks. “Who has been captaining this ship?”

While it’s true that Republicans have built a nearly impenetrable power structure in Columbia over the years, the truth is that Democrats aren’t beating down the doors.

The election in 2008 could have been big for Charleston Democrats. They won three County Council seats. And, along with Obama, Democrat Linda Ketner carried the county in the local Congressional race.

Yet 11 of the 12 Republicans representing Charleston County in the Statehouse went without a Democratic challenger. That includes two Republicans who were running in open seats, Mike Rose and Mike Sottile.

The appeal of political campaigns has gone the way of Mr. Smith, says Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg).

“People aren’t interested in doing this anymore,” she says.

And it’s not likely to change. Charleston Party Chair George Tempel says he hasn’t had any interest yet from Democrats willing to challenge incumbent Republicans.

Tempel says he can help candidates looking to run, but they have to already be motivated.

“When I ran for County Council (in 2006), nobody recruited me,” he says. “It was because I had a passion about what I wanted to do for James Island and Folly Beach.”

Change can happen. Democrat Leon Stavrinakis took a GOP district in 2006 and easily defended it two years later. In the one race where Democrats did field a challenger in 2008, Anne Peterson Hutto brought another seat to Democrats.

These districts are drawn to support a Republican incumbent, says Lachlan McIntosh, a consultant for the Hutto campaign. In Charleston, the voting patterns seem to be changing regardless of how the state GOP leaders drew the map.

“The Charleston area is definitely trending Democratic,” says McIntosh. “Well it’s more accurate to say it’s trending less Republican. It’s more up for grabs.”

And it’s up to Democrats to reach for the ball.

Party Priorities

Ott says plainly that the reason Republicans are still in power is because voters aren’t paying attention.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why people continue to vote against their interests,” he says.

But he goes further about the types of Democrats he wants on the ballot.

“Certainly we will encourage Democrats to run for office,” he says. “But, more important than electing Democrats is electing people who know the moms and pops … and represent the voters of South Carolina.”

Then he offers this jaw-dropping gem: “We need people who believe in God and aren’t afraid to say it.”

But Ott’s proselytizing is put into better perspective with a slightly different response from Tempel.

“Republicans don’t have a lock on morals and ethics,” he says. “We just haven’t been good at explaining that.”

Considering the close race in House District 115, it’s understandable that there’s this fresh look at values.

Rep. Wallace Scarborough had managed to squeeze victory out of a disastrous 2006 campaign season, which included his highly publicized divorce linked to an alleged Statehouse affair. Two years later, Hutto offered scandal-free representation and won.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” says Tempel. “Someone not corrupted by the environment in Columbia.”

But it goes beyond running against scandal and running for values. Republicans have also done a better job of fighting for fiscal conservatism. It’s about showing that South Carolina Democrats are different. It’s about combating the stereotype evident every time a Republican snarls words like “California” and “Massachusetts.”

“The Democrats in this state aren’t big government, big taxes,” Tempel says.

As the daughter of a successful businessman and a consultant in her own right, Ketner offered sharp criticism for wasteful spending in Washington and sloppy oversight of the very markets that doomed the country to recession — an argument that likely narrowed the divide Democrats had often faced when challenging GOP Congressman Henry Brown and Mark Sanford before him.

Candidates in 2010 are going to have more resources. Tempel says the party has a network already in place to support local and statewide candidates in Charleston County, with a party office already open and phone banks, e-mail blasts, and volunteer resources ready to go.

“We can offer considerably more organization than we ever have before,” Tempel says.

While Hutto’s win was close enough to suggest the Democrats will be doing well just to keep what success they’ve made, Tempel says he’s hopeful that other prospective candidates will make the effort.

“The perception is that it is so difficult for a Democrat to win against a Republican, that may discourage a lot of people,” he says. “With our recent success, maybe people will start to think again about running.”

While 2010 looks like a challenging year for Democrats everywhere, McIntosh notes that the Obama campaign offered good lessons that can be applied in the next election.

“Obama or his direct representatives went out and talked to voters themselves,” McIntosh says. “That’s the only way to effectively run a campaign.”

But, before the party can ask Democrats to support a slate of candidates, they have to find the candidates.